12 Our War Against Nature: Letters from the Front

Ronnie Hawkins

Learning Outcomes & Big Ideas

  • Summarise the diverse manifestations of global anthropogenic environmental change that characterise the Anthropocene.
  • Explain how those changes affect nonhumans and ecosystems, creating the sixth mass extinction event in the Earth’s history.
  • Describe what characteristics and circumstances render an animal species particularly at risk of becoming extinct in the Anthropocene.
  • Explain what food webs are, giving examples; explain how they can become ‘frayed’ by human impact.
  • Summarise how marine food webs are affected by acidification, deoxygenation and marine heat waves.
  • Differentiate the impacts exerted on food webs by macroplastics, microplastics and nanoplastics.
  • Summarise the challenges that render global overpopulation particularly problematic and difficult to address.
  • Explain how population size, consumption level, technological means work together to determine the ecological impact of a person.
  • Analyse how cultural factors conspire to render patterns of mass consumption to become part of the War on Nature.
  • Explore how the assumptions, beliefs and aspirations held by neoclassical economic theorists render their field non-scientific.
  • Develop a personal view about justifications, critiques, prospects of humanity’s War Against Nature.


This chapter is made up of the ‘case studies’ that follow from Our War Against Nature, written from a perspective that sees human security as co-extensive with maintaining the integrity of the Biosphere; in other words, if the Biosphere goes down we go down. It is important for us to resist the ‘shifting baselines’ phenomenon, a tendency to adjust uncritically to ‘the new normal’ as ecosystems are disrupted, human-altered landscapes spread and the global climate shifts into new extremes. Instead of recapping the dynamics of climate change, discussed in Chapter 9, however, the focus here will be on some of the pressing but lesser known “other” problems our growing demand on planetary systems is generating, with connections to climate change pointed out where pertinent. Many of the articles referred to herein have appeared in the scientific literature just in the last five years, and public awakening to the stark reality of our “existential crisis” is considerably more recent. It may not yet be too late to prevent a ‘state shift’ of the Earth System and the massive loss of Holocene-adapted lifeforms likely to accompany it, but the case studies presented in Part I of this chapter are meant to stand as evidence that our current trajectory is accelerating toward such a shift. Appreciating the magnitude of our human footprint, examined in Part II, should help us to understand what sorts of moves are needed to change course; it will require transformation of many of our humanly constructed institutions and certain widely shared beliefs and values–but that’s well within our capacity as flexible biological beings. We face a choice between clinging to the habits of thought and behavior that have driven Our War Against Nature and creating new ways of living that will assure a viable future for all Life on Earth. What will we choose?

Chapter Overview

PART I: The Assault on Organisms and Ecosystems

12.1 Introduction: Welcome to the Anthropocene!

12.2 Animal Armageddon

12.3 The Fraying of Food Webs

12.3.1 Terrestrial Food Webs: Defaunation and Pollution

12.3.2 Marine Food Webs: Overfishing, Disruption and Collapse

12.4 Assault on the Oceans: Chemical and Physical Changes

12.4.1 Acidification, Deoxygenation and Marine Heat Waves Ocean Acidification and Decalcification of Shelled Marine Life Ocean Deoxygenation Marine Heat Waves

12.4.2 Plastic, Microplastic and Nanoparticulate Pollution Macroplastics Microplastics Nanoparticulates

PART II: The Human Footprint

12.5 The Human Footprint: Population

12.6 The Human Footprint: Consumption

12.6.1 Sustaining the Human Population

12.6.2 The Global Livestock Industry The Diet-Environment-Human Health-Animal Ethics Quadrilemma The Deforestation of the Amazon

12.6.3 The “Bushmeat” Crisis Consuming Our Evolutionary Cohorts Profiting from Body Parts

12.7 Money Games: Chasing the Symbol

12.8 Who Are We?

Resources and References

Key Points

Extension Activities & Further Research

List of Terms


PART I: The Assault on Organisms and Ecosystems

12.1 Introduction: Welcome to the Anthropocene!

We humans have become so numerous and so powerful, the changes we have wrought on the Earth’s surface so extreme, that a new geological epoch is being named after us, the Anthropocene. It seems we have left the stability of the Holocene epoch, the preceding 10,000 to 12,000 years that followed the last Ice Age, and are now entering a period wherein many planetary parameters are shifting toward values unseen in hundreds of thousands or millions of years, with unknown consequences not only for human civilization but for all highly evolved lifeforms. Paul Crutzen dates its onset to the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, heralded by the invention of the steam engine and, coincidently, the beginning of the anthropogenic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane (Crutzen, 2002). Representative of the emerging field of Earth System Science,[1] Will Steffen and colleagues (2011) present a series of graphs, all reflecting the general outline of a J-curve, starting out slowly and rising to very high values rapidly near the end — the paradigm case being our human population, holding at less than one billion for all our previous existence prior to 1800 and then beginning a slow rise followed by a sharp upturn around 1950, coinciding with the onset of the “Great Acceleration” of “just about everything” else, from motor vehicles, telephones and McDonald’s restaurants to water use, fertilizer consumption, and species extinctions — and attempt to consider the effects of the changes in all these variables and their interactions with one another on the state of the biogeophysical system as a whole. Johan Rockstrom and associates (2009) delineate nine planetary boundaries that must not be crossed if we are to stay within “a safe operating space for humanity,” of which three have already been exceeded: rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, and interference with the nitrogen cycle, primarily in the form of massive amounts of reactive nitrogen created in the manufacture of fertilizer. Anthony Barnosky and co-authors (2012), meanwhile, focus specifically on the possibility of a “planetary-scale tipping point” that could trigger an irreversible shift from the present state of the Earth System into another, largely unknown one. As they explain, “biological ‘states’ are neither steady nor in equilibrium; rather, they are characterized by a defined range of deviations from a mean condition over a prescribed period of time,” and from time to time this “mean condition” can change, either as the result of a “sledgehammer” effect, such as the sudden bulldozing of an ecosystem, or via a “threshold” effect, through the accumulation of incremental changes over time, the actual threshold being unknown to us before the shift occurs. These authors list the global-scale “forcings” pushing us away from our present state, including habitat transformation, energy production and consumption, and climate change — all of which “far exceed,” in rate and magnitude, the forcings that drove the last global-scale state shift, the transition from the last ice age into the Holocene epoch, a transition that occurred over more than 3,000 years. They note, however, that “human population growth and per-capita consumption rate underlie all of the other present drivers of global change,” and so these ultimate drivers of Earth System change will be considered in more detail later in this chapter.

Steffen and colleagues (2018) recently explored the “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” depicting the “limit cycle” traced by the Earth when it was following its glacial-interglacial oscillation and, since many parameters are now departing from earlier values, projecting a possible alternative path that reaches a state they term “Hothouse Earth,” the impacts of which “would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive.” Analyzing the Anthropocene “from a complex systems perspective,” they illustrate our present precarious position, perched upon a “stability landscape” between two stable states, by asking the reader to visualize a marble rolling along a ridge between two valleys, representing two different “basins of attraction”–complex interactions among various parameters can trap the system in either of these two different states, should something trigger its rolling down into one or the other valley. While feedbacks in the complex relationships among many variables (greenhouse gas concentrations, ice sheet reflectivity, etc) have kept us in the relatively stable Holocene “valley” for thousands of years, anthropogenic changes are lifting us out of that valley and could potentially push us over the “hilltop” into another, possibly quite different and most likely less hospitable basin of attraction, which they describe as a “geologically long-lived, generally warmer state of the Earth System.”

To avoid the “Hothouse Earth” scenario, they stress the need for “planetary stewardship,” including “resilience-building strategies” to keep the planetary system in a “Stabilized Earth” state, noting that the current trends of our collective human activities, which tend to focus on enhancing economic efficiency rather than biogeophysical stability, “will likely not be adequate” for doing so. Carl Folke (2016) advocates seeing our human societies coupled with natural processes as interdependent social-ecological systems that need to focus on developing resilience, “the capacity to change in order to sustain identity” by “reorganizing in the face of disturbance.” He explains, “adaptation refers to human actions that sustain development on current pathways, while transformation is about shifting development into other emergent pathways and even creating new ones.” Engaging in “resilience thinking” in confrontation with our planetary boundaries, it becomes obvious that a transformation of our collective human actions is required, so as to become “in tune with the resilience of the biosphere” (2016). However, as he and his colleagues remark, “alas, resilience of behavioral patterns in society is notoriously large and a serious impediment for preventing loss of Earth System resilience” (Folke et al., 2010). Perhaps propagating awareness of the ontological difference between our socially constructed economic and political institutions and the complex systems that sustain the Biosphere — which we did not create and which we destabilize at our peril — could help foster such a transformation.

12.2 Animal Armageddon

“At least 1 million plant and animal species of the estimated eight million known are now at risk of extinction,” summarizes Eric Stokstad (2019) of the report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity (IPBES) issued in May of 2019. The report follows an announcement by the Living Planet Report the previous fall, informing us of “an overall decline of 60% in the population sizes of vertebrates between 1970 and 2014 — an average drop of well over half in less than 50 years” (World Wildlife Fund, 2018). And it was followed by another shocker, a report that nearly 3 billion birds — representing almost a third of bird abundance in North America — have been “lost” from ecosystems over the last 48 years (Rosenberg et al., 2019). The recent news of how severely our collective human activities have impacted other lifeforms on this planet has been a rude awakening for many of us, but alas, a dip into the recent scientific literature assures us that it is true.

On a scientifically conservative estimate, we humans have already brought about the extinction of almost 500 species of vertebrate animals since 1900 (Ceballos et al., 2015); these scientists found that “the evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history,” leading them to conclude that “our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years.” The total number of species already declared officially extinct may not sound that alarming, however, until the number of species, vertebrate and invertebrate, that are now considered to be somewhere along the way — officially “threatened” with extinction in the near future — is revealed: it was around 28,000 in 2019 — 27% of over 100,000 assessed species–and includes, for example, 25% of all mammals, 14% of all birds, and 40% of all amphibians (IUCN Red List, 2019). The “1 million at risk of extinction” reflects the fact that more than 500,000 terrestrial species now “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and thus “are committed to extinction,” many of them within the coming decades unless significant habitat restoration is carried out and other threats defused quickly (Diaz et al., 2019, p. 13).

High levels of vertebrate population decline and loss are found across the tropics, and are especially prominent in the Amazon, central Africa and south/southeast Asia. The ‘proximate’ drivers of the descent toward extinction — the immediate threats responsible for taking out a species — include overexploitation (direct killing by humans), habitat destruction through land conversion and fragmentation, invasion by introduced species and disease, toxification from pesticides and other pollution, and now, increasingly, climate change (Dirzo et al., 2014). The “ultimate” drivers of these trends, however, are just about always some combination of continuing human population growth and increasing per capita consumption (Ceballos et al., 2017). Overexploitation of wildlife now takes the form of the ‘bushmeat’ trade — now including the taking of animal body parts to sell on the world market — in many tropical countries around the world, as what may have once been the ‘sustainable’ hunting of wild animals for meat has “metamorphosed into a global hunting crisis” that now threatens “the immediate survival” of over 300 species of mammals as well as other kinds of wildlife (see Ripple et al., 2016a), a problem that will be considered in more detail in Section 12.6.3.

Focusing on extinction per se is misleading, however, because it obscures the fact that an actual extinction is usually the result of a long period of loss of organisms from local populations and loss of populations from the landscape that eventually adds up to the disappearance of the species altogether. While extinction results in a permanent loss of biodiversity from the planet, moreover, population declines and alterations in species composition contribute to alterations in ecosystem function that can cascade throughout ecosystems in nonlinear fashion (as will be discussed in the following section). In 2017, Gerardo Ceballos, Paul Ehrlich and Rudolfo Dirzo reported on the “biological annihilation” that’s happening with increasing rapidity now, as numbers of individual animals shrink and populations diminish. Examining data for a sample of over 27,000 species of terrestrial vertebrates — nearly half of known vertebrate species — they found that around a third are experiencing significant population losses, both in numbers and in range size; moreover, almost half of the 177 species of mammals they examined have lost more than 80% of their geographical ranges since 1900, and all of them have lost at least a third. Most shocking of all, however, is their estimate that “as much as 50% of the number of [vertebrate] animal individuals that once shared Earth with us are already gone” (Ceballos et al., 2017). And a look at biomass ratios really brings home the massive scale of our growing human footprint, and what it is doing to our evolutionary cohorts within the Biosphere. Yinon Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo (2018) estimated the total biomass of all living wild mammals (terrestrial and marine) today to be, in round numbers, only about 0.006 gigatonnes of carbon (GtC), while the biomass of all the humans on the planet — more than 7 and a half billion of us–is .06 GtC, and that of all livestock (dominated by cattle and pigs) is 0.10 GtC; in other words, the total biomass of all the wild mammals on Earth is equal to only about four percent of the total biomass of humans plus their domesticated food animals. When the biomass of great whales and other marine mammals is excluded, moreover, the biomass of wild land mammals is estimated to be about 0.003 GtC, or about five percent of the biomass of humans alone, and less than two percent of the biomass of us humans and our livestock taken together. The impact of our human species on other forms of life has thus been truly staggering.

Characteristics that tend to make a species more vulnerable to diminution and eventual extinction include large body size, low reproductive rate and large home range requirements, especially when the existing habitat range is small, making many of the “terrestrial megafauna” severely threatened (see Ripple et al., 2016b, 2017). You can take almost any large-bodied wild mammal you’ve ever heard of and chart an ominous decline. Franck Courchamp and colleagues (2018) discovered that there is still very little public awareness of the dire straits of many of their favorite animals; recapping the little-known situation with our “charismatic megafauna,” tigers have been knocked down to less than seven percent of their historical levels in the wild, lions to less than eight percent, and elephants less than 10%; three of four giraffe species have experienced declines of over 50%, one more than 90%, leopards have lost up to 75% of their range, with only three percent of the original range remaining for six of nine subspecies, and cheetahs have been extirpated from 29 African countries, remaining on only nine percent of their historic range, while two gorilla subspecies have dwindled to a few hundred individuals and populations of the other two have plummeted to less than half what they were over the last 20 years.

While habitat loss has been steadily reducing populations across the board, these authors report that, when killing for bushmeat, trophy hunting and conflicts with humans are considered together, direct killing by humans is responsible for the greatest number of them being endangered overall; they estimate, for example, that “unsustainable bushmeat hunting, trophy hunting, habitat loss and human conflict all combine to make most of African lion populations surviving the next few decades unlikely” (Courchamp et al., 2018, S2). Elephants and rhinos are being slaughtered mercilessly for their ivory and their horns across Africa, and even giraffes, which have declined by 40% over the last 20 years, are in part falling prey to the trade in their highly prized tail (see Chase et al., 2016; Gibbens, 2018; and Daley, 2016, respectively). Polar bears, who typically support themselves almost exclusively by preying on seal pups emerging from crevices in the sea ice, and as the ice thins and melts, they will inexorably starve unless they learn to consume land-based prey (Whiteman, 2018). Killer whales, once abundant in the oceans, are now estimated to count only in the tens of thousands, with many populations declining as a result of a reduction in salmon and other prey, disturbance by boat traffic, acoustic injury from sonar used in naval exercises and underwater exploration, and toxic effects of oil spills and other pollution; more than half of their populations are thought to be at high risk of “complete collapse” over the next century from the bioaccumulation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their tissues (Desforges et al., 2018).

Among our closest evolutionary relatives, 60% of primate species are threatened with extinction “because of unsustainable human activities,” while 75% of primate populations are decreasing globally (Estrada et al., 2017). Chimpanzees are officially classified as “endangered,” and all gorillas are now listed as “critically endangered,” while the tiny mountain gorilla population is holding on at less than 500 individuals (Gray, 2013). Bonobos are also classified as “endangered,” with an estimated population of 15,000 to 20,000 individuals (Fruth et al., 2016); disturbingly, their entire range is contained within the lowland forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and one that is subject to out-of-control slaughtering of wildlife for “bushmeat,”[2] as well as increasing habitat fragmentation, warfare, and the rages of an ebola epidemic, to which great apes are susceptible. Meanwhile, the fourth great ape, the orangutan, may be hurtling toward extinction the fastest of all, with over 100,000 killed in Borneo between 1999 and 2015, cutting the population by more than half, leaving an estimated 70,000-100,000 there plus less than 14,000 in Sumatra; all orangutans are now listed as “critically endangered,” by expanding palm oil plantations as well as hunting in primary and selectively logged forests (Voigt et al., 2018).

Pangolins — a little-known, shy, nocturnal mammal described as resembling “an artichoke on legs” that, when threatened, rolls itself up in a scale-covered ball sufficient to protect it from all natural predators but not, unfortunately, from its human enemies — are being devastated by a burgeoning trade in their meat, skin and scales; after China’s population of pangolins was reduced by 94% since the 1960s, poaching of pangolins in Africa has reportedly increased by 150%, with as many as three million now being removed annually from Central African forests, most of them bound for China (Ingram, 2018); pangolins are being considered a “probable animal source” of the coronavirus outbreak that has now become a global pandemic (Cyranoski 2020); Sonia Shah points out that many zoonoses now affecting the human species are the result of our accelerating invasion of natural habitats for live animals and their parts to sell in so-called “wet markets” (Shah, 2020), as will be discussed further in section 12.6.3.

Hundreds of thousands of seabirds suffer high mortality as “incidental catch” in drift nets, purse seines, gill nets, traps, trawls and longlines, while wind turbines have been estimated to kill more than 400,000 birds a year, communication towers over six million, and domestic cats between 1 and 4 billion in the US alone (White, 2013), even as millions are being shot while migrating over Europe “for food, profit, sport, and general amusement” (Franzen, 2013; Margalida & Mateo, 2019). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of wading birds have been destroyed by the closing off of the Saemangeum tidal flat by South Korea in 2006, described by Michael McCarthy (2015, pp. 66-68, 81) as “the biggest destruction of an estuary that has ever taken place,” “a giant engineering vanity project” and “one of the most egregious examples of environmental vandalism the modern world can offer”; the number of shorebirds using the flat are down by as much as 97% (Lee et al., 2018), and worse yet, 50 million wading birds using the East Asia/Australasia Flyway for their twice-yearly migration are at risk from escalating habitat destruction all along the Chinese and Korean coast of the Yellow Sea, their precipitously declining numbers already indicating “a flyway under threat” (Piersma et al., 2016). The Helmeted Hornbill, another notable bird species, was put on the “Critically Endangered” list in 2015, not only for rapidly dwindling habitat but also because demand is growing for the “red ivory” of its “casque,” which is carved into handicrafts for Chinese markets,[3] something that was recently decried in the journal Science (Li & Huang, 2020). And, unbeknownst to many ardent admirers of Irene Pepperberg’s late Alex, the celebrated African Grey Parrot is also now in danger of extinction. African Greys used to inhabit more than a million square miles across West and Central Africa, but because of the international pet trade — the African Grey is the single most heavily traded wild bird, according to CITES, the organization that regulates global wildlife trade — it is believed that more than a million of the birds were taken from the wild over the past 20 years. Ghana reportedly has lost 90-99% of its African Greys since 1992 (Annorbah, 2015); as populations are wiped out in Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and elsewhere, birders are recognizing “the African silence” (Steyn, 2016).

Reptiles are included in the global decline, while amphibians are seriously threatened worldwide by the chytridiomycosis panzootic that is affecting over 500 species, causing the presumed extinction of at least 90 of them over the past half-century, the greatest loss of biodiversity attributable to a disease ever recorded (Scheele et al., 2019). Large fish in the oceans have reportedly dropped in numbers by over 90% (Myers and Worm 2003, SeaWeb 2003), with some species, such as cod and some tunas, falling by as much as 99%, and it has been noted that only 37% of shark species are not threatened with extinction, with up to 100 million sharks being killed every year for the global trade in shark fins, the major driver of their road to extinction (Sadovy de Mitcheson et al., 2018). And populations of mobulid rays–manta and devils rays, now known to be highly social and intelligent but also very slow to reproduce, with only one offspring every three years or so — are plunging, largely due to the growing Chinese market for their gill plates, erroneously believed to “clean impurities” when ingested but actually containing high levels of cadmium and arsenic (Guardian, 2014). They are also suffer high mortality as “incidental catch” in drift nets, purse seines, and other technologies of industrial fishing.

The dire straits of many more of our fellow members of the Biosphere could be recounted here, but perhaps it is more pertinent to ask how it is that even the well-known mammals — the ‘charismatic megafauna’ so prominent in our human imaginations — could be under such assault without it having come to our global attention long before this. How could we have missed it? This question is explored by Franck Courchamp and his colleagues (2018). They identified “the 10 most charismatic animals”: the tiger, the lion, the elephant, the giraffe, the leopard, the panda, the cheetah, the polar bear, the gray wolf and the gorilla, all but one of which are either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, and discovered, that fully half of people asked in surveys were not informed about their conservation status. Volunteers were then asked to document every encounter with one of these 10 animals in advertisements, entertainment, logos and so on, and they reported seeing as many as 30 individual images of each of the 10 species over the course of a week, corresponding to several hundred encounters per month; lions, for example, were seen at an average rate of 4.4 images per day, “meaning that people see an average two to three times as many ‘virtual’ lions in a single year than the total population of wild lions currently living in the whole of West Africa.” They concluded that “the public perception of the conservation status of these species appears to reflect virtual populations rather than real ones” (Courchamp et al., 2018), masking the real extinction risk, and they have proposed that companies benefiting from using images of these (and other endangered) animals in their marketing pay a fee to be spent directly on conservation efforts benefiting these animals. But, meanwhile, our War Against Nature continues to take its heavy toll.

12.3 The Fraying of Food Webs

12.3.1 Terrestrial Food Webs: Defaunation and Pollution

It is now known that “ecosystems are built around interaction webs within which every species potentially can influence many other species,” and that the “trophic downgrading” that results from the loss of large apex consumers reduces food chain length and can lead to abrupt state changes in ecosystems “with radically different patterns and pathways of energy and material flux and sequestration” (Estes et al., 2011). Anthropocene defaunation is a more precise name for the phenomenon discussed in the previous section, since the term defaunation can cover loss of individuals, populations, and species of wildlife (Dirzo et al., 2014); it is a term that needs to become as widely recognized as deforestation, since “a forest can be destroyed from within as well as from without” (Redford, 1992), as will be discussed in more detail in Section 12.6.3. Human hunting is increasingly taking a toll, especially on the larger animals, while other proximate drivers of overall terrestrial defaunation include habitat destruction, the invasion of nonnative species and climate change.

Large-bodied animals that feed at the ‘apex’ of trophic pyramids, like the great cats and other true carnivores, often exert strong top-down regulatory effects on the ecosystems they inhabit (see Ripple et al,. 2014), so the loss of a carnivore at the highest trophic level can “cascade” down through all the trophic levels in an ecosystem. When sea otters were removed from waters off the coast of Alaska, sea urchins, released from otter predation, devastated kelp beds, until they themselves were ‘fished out’ from many parts of the ocean (see Steneck, 2002); likewise, when dam construction in Venezuela created a chain of predator-free islands, leaf-eaters–howler monkeys, iguanas and leaf-cutter ants — were released from predation and there was a subsequent reduction in young canopy trees (Terborgh et al., 2001). Conversely, when an apex predator, the grey wolf, was reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park,[4] wolf territories reduced elk grazing pressure on young aspen stands, allowing the forest to regrow and ultimately changing the landscape in a remarkable manner (see Ripple & Beschta, 2011). Large herbivores like bison and elephants are also important components of ecosystems, acting as “ecosystem engineers” by trampling and consuming vegetation (Ripple et al., 2015); they can also be important seed dispersers, and as herbivore populations become depleted around the world, a “wave of recruitment failures” is expected among animal-dispersed trees. While not typically apex consumers, primates are important seed dispersers as well, as are fruit-eating and nectar-feeding bats and many kinds of birds, which are also important in pollination and insect control.

Meanwhile, so far nothing has been said about invertebrate life — “the little things that run the world,” as E. O. Wilson called them more than 30 years ago, when the current situation was barely imaginable; even then, however, he expressed doubt “that the human species could last more than a few months” if they all disappeared (Wilson, 1987). Now several recent studies are highlighting alarming trends. Hallman and colleagues (2017), counting insects in nature reserves surrounded by agricultural fields within a typical Western European landscape, reported a decline in the biomass of flying insects of about 80% over 30 years — an average loss of 2.8% biomass per year that, if continued, could result in a total loss within the century. A parallel decline was observed in larks, swallows, swifts and other insectivorous birds, leading one of the researchers to comment, “if you’re an insect-eating bird” living in the areas studied, “four-fifths of your food is gone in the last quarter-century, which is staggering” (see Vogel, 2017). A similar 60-80% drop in biomass over 36 years was recorded for insects living in the tree canopy of a tropical forest, as well as a 98% drop in insects from the forest floor (Lister & Garcia, 2018), with “synchronous declines” documented in the lizards, frogs and birds dependent upon them for food.

Reviewing of more than 70 reports of insect decline from around the globe, Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019) compiled evidence of “dramatic rates of decline” in insect numbers that, if continued, they projected could “lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades.” More recently, Seibold and colleagues (2019) reported “widespread declines in arthropod biomass, abundance, and the number of species across trophic levels” in both grassland and forest habitats, finding the major drivers of the declines to be largely associated with agriculture at the landscape level. “Our study confirms that insect decline is real,” Seibold told BBC News, noting that it is occurring in protected areas as well as those that are intensively managed (Briggs 2019). A group of conservation biologists “deeply concerned about the decline of insect populations worldwide” provided a comprehensive overview of the problem and issued a “scientists’ warning to humanity” about the seriousness of this problem as this chapter was undergoing its final edit (Cardoso et al., 2020).

Since insects are adapted to a very narrow range of temperature variation in the tropics, climate warming may be a factor in insect decline there, but elsewhere the “root cause” of the dramatic decline is thought to be the intensification of agriculture and, in particular, “the widespread, relentless use of synthetic pesticides,” according to Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys (2019). As the most widely used insecticides in the world, neonicotinoid insecticides are highly suspect as a major driver of this decline. They are systemic, meaning that they are absorbed and distributed to all parts of the plants they are applied to, not only leaves and flowers but pollen and nectar. They persist in soils for a year or more, but are water soluble, contaminating up to 80% of surface waters; there they affect a variety of aquatic insect larvae, indirectly reducing populations of fish, frogs, birds, bats and others that feed on them. Along with fipronil, the neonicotinoids are suspected of playing a large role in the decline of honeybees, bumblebees and other wild bees around the world (Sanchez-Bayo, 2014); foraging bees typically take contaminated pollen and nectar back to the hive, where sublethal effects of these neurotoxic insecticides affect movement, olfaction, orientation, and navigation, impairing the mushroom bodies (see Section 11.3.5) important in bees’ learning and memory, disturbing foraging and homing behavior and disrupting the “waggle dance”[5] used to communicate the location of nectar plants to other bees in the colony (van der Sluijs et al. 2013). These synthetic insecticides disrupt biological controls and trigger pest resistance, and they don’t really contribute to crop yields, according to Sanchez-Bayo and Wyckhuys, so there will be “no danger” in reducing their use drastically (2019).

Meanwhile, the escalating use of herbicides–especially glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, widely used around the world now in combination with genetically modified crops — is leading to growing concerns about their effects on soil invertebrates, as well as soil microorganisms, the functioning of below-ground ecological communities, and the aquatic communities downstream of agricultural runoff. According to Benbrook (2016), about 8.6 billion kg have been applied worldwide over the last 40 years, with dramatic increases over the last decade or so. Glyphosate acts by inhibiting the EPSPS enzyme in the shikimate pathway, essential to metabolism in plants, fungi, and some bacteria but absent in vertebrate animals, so it was originally assumed to pose minimal risks, but a potentially serious effect on honeybees has recently been reported, illustrating the complexity of ecological systems: genomes of the beneficial bacteria in honeybee gut flora contain the gene coding for EPSPS, potentially making them susceptible to glyphosate inhibition, possibly increasing mortality and reducing their effectiveness as pollinators around agricultural fields (Motta, Raymann & Moran, 2018).

Glyphosate is absorbed from the leaves of sprayed plants and transported systemically to the roots; it can be released into the rhizosphere, possibly being transferred through the roots of dying plants to living, untreated ones, affecting trees and other plants near treated fields. Kremer and Means (2009) found glyphosate interacted with the below-ground microbial community, and Kremer (2014) reported herbicide-resistant weed infestations release root exudates potentially detrimental to the mycorrhizal fungi, important for plant uptake of nutrients and water. A review article by Annett, Habibi and Hontela (2014) examines the reported effects of glyphosate and formulations with different surfactants on organisms in freshwater ecosystems, noting amphibians seem particularly susceptible to its toxic effects due to their larval dependence on water and frequent location near agricultural fields. There are also growing concerns about its effects on human health, especially since high residue levels are being found on crops subjected to post-season drying (“green burndown”) with glyphosate (Myers et al., 2016); studies on residues, and the concept of “substantial equivalency,” have been criticized as inadequate (Cuhra, 2015). In 2015, the World Health Organization found “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals” and “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkins lymphoma” following exposure to glyphosate (WHO, 2015).

Predictably, more than 200 weed species have developed resistance to one or more herbicides, with at least 24 of them resistant to glyphosate (Heap, 2013). In response, biotechnology companies are developing second-generation, “stacked” GM crops with resistance to several herbicides, typically 2,4-D and dicamba, containing synthetic auxins that interfere with the natural plant hormones involved in growth regulation; they are reportedly of low toxicity to vertebrates but extremely toxic to broadleaf plants, and their high volatility and proneness to drift risks injury to both non-GM crops and nontarget plant species, according to Mortensen and colleagues (2012). Noting that the evolution of resistance to both herbicides and insecticides is outstripping our ability to come up with new ones, Gould, Brown and Kuzma (2018) discuss why we “mostly continue to use pesticides as if resistance is a temporary issue,” calling it a “wicked problem” arising from a combination of social, economic and biological factors that decrease incentives for taking a different approach to “pest” control.

According to Hayes and Hansen (2017), “there is probably no place on earth that is not affected by pesticides; they report that an estimated 2.3 billion kilograms of pesticides are being used annually around the world, and they review evidence of alterations in landscapes, populations and gene pools of organisms from both actute toxic and chronic “low dose” effects. Many older, “legacy chemicals” are also still around, contaminating food webs around the world (Matthiessen, Wheeler & Weltje, 2018). The organochlorine insecticides, “hard” pesticides like DDT, were banned in most developed countries years ago but are still in widespread use, with 3.3 million kilograms produced annually (Hayes & Hansen, 2017); these, along with other chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs)– long-lived, fat-soluble compounds that are known to accumulate in animal tissues and biomagnify, increasing in concentration as they move up food chains, often reaching very high levels in apex predators. Many of the POPs have been shown to be toxic, endocrine-disrupting and/or carcinogenic, and long-lived vertebrates occupying high trophic levels not only risk such effects from retaining these chemicals in their own bodies for long periods of time but potentially pass them on to offspring in eggs or milk (Rowe 2008). Kohler and Triebskorn have drawn attention to how little we know about the full extent of unintended impacts of pesticides on wildlife at the higher levels of populations, communities and ecosystems (2013); immunosuppression reportedly can be caused by all the organochlorine, organophosphate, and carbamate insecticides as well as by atrazine and 2, 4-D herbicides.

Moreover, in addition to the biocides — chemicals intentionally designed to kill certain forms of life, the “pesticides” that include rodenticides, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and so on — there are over 4000 pharmaceuticals now in global use in human and veterinary medicine continuously being released into the environment through wastewater and sewage sludge; they are generally highly potent at low concentrations, and their modes of action show strong evolutionary conservation across vertebrate species–meaning that what affects us will probably affect many other lifeforms somewhat similarly. An Australian team found over 60 pharmaceutical compounds in the bodies of invertebrates collected from streams and in riparian spiders consuming them, considering them likely to be contaminating other consumers such as frogs, birds and bats (Richmond et al., 2018); they calculated that vertebrate predators on aquatic invertebrates such as the platypus could consume as much as half a human’s therapeutic dose of antidepressants, kilogram for kilogram.

Finally, it should be noted that pollution from small particles of plastic — “microplastics” — which is a growing concern in the world’s oceans, to be discussed in section 12.4.4, is problem for terrestrial ecosystems as well. A recent study found that microplastics are being carried by the wind to places far from population centers and are likely distributed widely around the planet; daily counts of atmospheric deposition averaging almost 250 fragments 3 mm or less in size per square meter were found in a remote and supposedly “pristine” mountain area of the French Pyrenees (Allen et al., 2019). “It suggests that this is a far bigger problem than we have currently thought about,” says one of the study’s co-authors; the concern is that it “gives us a background level of microplastic that you probably get pretty much everywhere in the world” (see Thompson, 2019). If there are worries about this atmospheric deposition contaminating soil, however, here’s an even bigger source of that problem: some farmers use treated sewage sludge to fertilize their fields, adding a load of microfibers skimmed off of wastewater along with the nutrients that could add up to tens to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastics added to farmlands in Europe and North America every year (Thompson, 2018a); yet another soil additive, moreover, is so-called “mixed waste — a ground-up amalgam of food scraps and unrecyclable material” that, applied thickly on one farm in Australia, added so much plastic to the topsoil that it looked like it was “glistening.” And yes, it’s finally happened — “anthropogenic debris” has been reported in beer, as well as sea salt and tap water (Kosuth, Mason & Wattenberg, 2018). It seems microplastics are now everywhere — they have even been found in human feces (Parker, 2018).

12.3.2 Marine Food Webs: Overfishing, Disruption and Collapse

Ransom Myers and Boris Worm startled the scientific community with their announcement (2003; see SeaWeb, 2003) that “the global ocean has lost 90% of large predatory fishes,” along with “general, pronounced declines of entire communities across widely varying ecosystems.” The decrease in many marine vertebrates has been severe enough that too few of them remain to carry out their normal functional role in many ecosystems, in some places leaving “empty estuaries” and “empty reefs” similar to the “empty forests” in terrestrial systems (McCauley et al., 2015). The striking marine defaunation is recent, since fishing effort intensified only over the last century with the arrival of industrial fishing techniques, the loss of fish being followed by a decline in sea turtles, sea birds, and marine mammals. As Crespo and Dunn (2017) summarize, “the world’s oceans are experiencing an unprecedented level of biotic exploitation, which is altering the abundance and population structure of many species, transforming the composition of biological communities, and threatening the integrity and resilience of entire marine ecosystems.” Marine biologist Daniel Pauly and colleagues explain (1998) that fisheries around the world have shown a pattern over recent decades of “fishing down the food web,” where what is caught is transitioning from “long-lived, high trophic level, piscivorous bottom fish toward short-lived, low trophic level invertebrates and planktivorous pelagic fish,” often with complete collapse of the high trophic level species and replacement with lower trophic level species in fishing catches.

Changes in Chesapeake Bay illustrate how these changes evolved in one coastal community. According to Jackson et al. (2001), “gray whales, dolphins, manatees, river otters, sea turtles, alligators, giant sturgeon, sheepshead, sharks and rays were all once abundant inhabitants of Chesapeake Bay but are now virtually eliminated.” Until the end of the 19th century, the Bay contained dense concentrations of oysters, filter feeders that consumed phytoplankton so efficiently that algae blooms never occurred, even with agricultural runoff. Introduction of mechanical harvesting in the late 1800s had a serious impact on the oyster reefs by the early 20th century and decimated them by the 1920s. Eutrophication began to be observed in the Bay by the 1930s. Today, with the oyster reefs essentially destroyed, Chesapeake Bay is now considered a “bacterially dominated ecosystem,” with a trophic structure completely different from what it was a century ago; it is characterized by “population explosions of microbes responsible for increasing eutrophication,” and, in combination with hypoxia, disease, and continued dredging, this now prevents the recovery of oysters and their associated ecological community (Jackson et al., 2001).

Coral reefs are in decline around the world due to global warming-induced coral bleaching, and the combination of higher temperatures and increasing acidification of ocean waters as they absorb CO2 may at some point drive them over a ‘tipping point’ into algae-dominated states[6]; according to Hoegh-Guldberg et al. (2007), at atmospheric CO2 levels nearing 500 ppm, “reefs will become rapidly eroding rubble banks, as are already seen in parts of the Great Barrier Reef.” Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the world’s largest and most diverse coral reef ecosystem–has undergone mass bleaching events four times over the last twenty years, the northern two thirds being severely damaged by the last two in 2016 and 2017, with the concomitant heat stress killing many reproductive adult corals, leading to nearly a 90% drop in larvae recruited into the population in 2018 (Hughes et al., 2019). Many reefs are also suffering from overfishing, with loss of the larger predatory fish cascading through the system, allowing the escape of smaller fishes and invertebrates that causes booms and busts of algal overgrazing, such that “today, the most degraded reefs are little more than rubble, seaweed, and slime”; these researchers also report that many reefs off the coast of Florida are “well over halfway toward ecological extinction” (Pandolfi et al., 2005).

Perhaps the best-known example of marine defaunation, however, is the ‘crash’ of the Northern Atlantic cod fishery off Newfoundland and Labrador in 1992, which apparently came as quite a surprise to the fishery operators and regulators. Atlantic cod had been harvested for centuries, but with modern harvesting equipment and factory ships arriving in the 1950s, catches went from around 227-327,000 tonnes per year to a peak of 735,000 tonnes in 1968 and then began to diminish, and were down by 80% by 1977. Harvesting was then restricted, but the cod never recovered to anywhere near their previous levels; technological advances in locating and capturing fish allowed increasing catch sizes despite “dramatic declines in catch rate,” concealing the true condition of the cod population throughout the 1980s until its sudden collapse (Hutchings & Myers, 1994). The cod still haven’t come back significantly, and cascading effects within the marine ecosystem have allowed small pelagic fish like herring that principally feed upon zooplankton — which include the eggs and larvae of the cod– increased in biomass by around 900%, effecting a “predator-prey role reversal” that may be largely responsible for preventing cod recovery (Frank et al., 2005; Frank et al., 2013).

Tunas are another group of particular concern. More than 60% of the tuna harvest is captured in purse seines, giant nets that pull up from below to encircle entire schools of tuna and other schooling fish once they are located with sophisticated sensing technologies, taking a significant amount of  ‘bycatch,’ other species that are (usually) unintentionally caught up in the seine nets, such that “tuna fisheries are directly responsible for endangering a wide range of oceanic pelagic sharks, billfishes, seabirds, and turtles” (Juan-Jorda et al., 2011) as well as marine mammals, killing around 1000 dolphins a year and harming many more (see Brown, 2016). Unlike the cod, overall tuna catches have continued to increase since the 1950s, but this continuing increase “was achieved by halving global tuna biomass in half a century” (Juan-Jorda et al., 2011). Tunas and their relatives, along with the billfish — swordfish and marlins–are apex predators of pelagic food webs, so they very likely exert important trophic effects within the whole ocean ecosystem; unfortunately, some of them are highly valued economically and thereby increasingly threatened with extinction, with the biomass of the Southern Bluefin tuna is now said to be about five percent of its original size, so its population “has already essentially crashed,” paralleling the trend of the western Atlantic Bluefin, whose population has not rebuilt since it plummeted in the 1970s (Colette et al., 2011). Individual Bluefin tunas were selling at over $100,000 five years ago, making them among the “rhinos of the ocean” — for those of a certain mindset, they will “never be too rare to be hunted” (McCauley et al., 2015).

And it is clear all is not well with marine fisheries globally. Daniel Pauly, attempting to reconstruct the historical sizes of fish populations, concluded that most of his colleagues had fallen prey to the “shifting baselines syndrome,”[7] whereby each new generation of scientists takes the stock sizes that prevailed at the beginning of their careers as the ‘baseline’ and evaluates changes in relation to it, not noticing that the baseline itself has been gradually shifting downward (Pauly, 1995), a phenomenon he has described in a (2010) TED talk.[8] In a recent interview (Schiffman, 2018), Pauly called the global industrial fishing industry “a Ponzi scheme,” explaining, “a Ponzi scheme is where you pay your old investors money from new investors, not from any actual profit.” That’s what’s been happening as industrial fisheries have developed over the last 50 or 60 years, he charges — “we fish out one place, European or North American waters, for example, then we go to Southeast Asia or Africa, now even Antarctica.” With the new technologies that have become available, “we’ve destroyed all the protections that fish populations once enjoyed” — “depth was a protection, cold was a protection, ice was a protection because we couldn’t fish in those areas” — but “we can now go everywhere the fish once sheltered.” Global catches have been declining by one to two million tonnes a year since the mid-1990s, he reports; we’re getting up against the limits of the Earth now, it seems, and when you run out of new fishing stocks to exploit, “the whole [Ponzi] scheme collapses.”

But what’s happening to populations of deep-sea organisms may be cause for even more concern. Most deep-sea fisheries utilize bottom trawls, fishing gear that drags a net along the ocean floor and that can weigh several tonnes and do tremendous damage to the benthic habitat. One study found that, compared with the impacts of oil and gas drilling, submarine communications cables, marine scientific research, and the historical dumping of radioactive wastes, munitions and chemical weapons, “the extent of bottom trawling is very significant and, even on the lowest possible estimates, is an order of magnitude greater than the total extent of all the other activities” (Benn et al., 2010). Moreover, bottom trawling activities can be concentrated on ocean ridges and seamounts, which are particularly vulnerable to the effects of such disturbance. Seamounts are “true mountains under the sea,” usually 2-3 kilometers in height, that have become covered with sessile invertebrates including octocorals, hard corals, sponges, crinoids, and other suspension feeders that structure the habitat for fish but that are very fragile and easily broken (Watling & Auster, 2017). Daniel Pauly tries to describe what was “encountered” by a trawler in his “shifting baselines” TED talk: “Well,” he says, at the time “we didn’t have words for it,” but now he knows, “it was the bottom of the sea”; 90% of the catch was made up of sponges and other organisms that had been attached to the bottom, while any fish that were caught were just “little spots on the piles of debris.” The “most rational decision,” according to Watling and Auster, is to simply protect seamounts in perpetuity; meanwhile, Pauly advocates closing off the “high seas” — the open ocean outside the control of the coastal countries, which extends out to 200 miles offshore — from fishing, allowing many fish populations to rebuild and very likely increasing the harvestable catch of many less-developed coastal nations, while Eileen Crist has called for declaring the whole “area” of the high seas off limits to all extractive activity, for fish and fossil fuels as well as for minerals, renaming it “the common heritage of all Life” (Crist, 2019).

12.4 Assault on the Oceans: Chemical and Physical Changes

12.4.1 Acidification, Deoxygenation and Marine Heat Waves

As we humans have changed the chemistry of the atmosphere by emitting increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other gases, we have also been changing the chemical composition and physical properties of the world’s oceans. Three major changes in the oceans are taking place globally in response to this: acidification, deoxygenation and an overall warming trend with focal areas of markedly higher temperatures than were the recent norm, all of which have ominous implications for the organisms that live there. Ocean Acidification and the Decalcification of Shelled Marine Life

Only about half of the carbon dioxide we have emitted over recent decades has remained in the atmosphere; of the other half, about 30% has been absorbed and stored in the oceans and 20% incorporated into the bodies of terrestrial biota, holding down the amount of global temperature rise that would otherwise have occurred (Feely et al., 2004). When CO2 dissolves in seawater it forms carbonic acid, which releases hydrogen ions, making the water slightly less alkaline and more acidic. Acidity or alkalinity is measured in pH, a logarithmic scale on which 7.0 indicates neutrality. Ocean acidification doesn’t mean that the seas are “turning acid” — they are slightly alkaline, presently with a pH of 8.6 — but rather that their pH is moving downwards, toward the acid side of the scale. Ocean acidification should perhaps be called ocean decalcification, however, because the most sinister effect of reducing the availability of carbonate ions in the oceans is that it will make it harder for many different types of shelled organisms to form the calcium carbonate that mineralizes them and, if carbon emissions continue to rise as they have been, this will threaten the survival of a large percentage of the organisms making up the base of oceanic food webs, with ramifications that will reverberate throughout marine ecosystems (Hardt & Safina, 2008).

Calcium carbonate (CaCO3) can crystallize in three different forms, each with a different solubility; it takes the form of aragonite in corals and pteropods[9] as well as many larger molluscs, as magnesian calcite in coralline algae, and as calcite in coccolithophores and foraminifera. Aragonite and magnesian calcite are about 50% more soluble than calcite, so the organisms utilizing these forms are likely to be the most vulnerable in the near future. A combination of temperature, pressure and depth determine whether or not the ocean water is saturated with the calcium ion, Ca++, a state in which the mineral will tend to be deposited, or undersaturated, in which it will tend to dissolve; a definite horizontal boundary, known as the saturation horizon, exists at a certain depth for each crystalline form, below which the shells and other calcified parts of the bodies of these marine organisms will start to dissolve, according to the following reaction:[10]

CO2 + CaCO3 + H2O   →   2HCO3 + Ca++

The saturation horizons for all these forms of calcium carbonate are becoming shallower by tens to hundreds of meters, squeezing calcifying marine organisms into an ever-shrinking available habitat between the saturation horizon and the surface (Hardt & Safina, 2008). Moreover, even in waters above the saturation horizon, as the degree of carbonate ion supersaturation decreases, the rate at which these animals are able to calcify their body parts decreases; nearly all reef-building corals are showing “a marked decline” in calcification under these conditions (Feely et al., 2004).[11] A modeling study of calcium carbonate saturation under several emissions scenarios, “a new shallow aragonite saturation horizon emerges suddenly” in many places in the Southern Ocean between now and 2100 (Negrete-Garcia, 2019), potentially affecting shelled pteropods, cold-water corals, sea urchins, molluscs, coralline algae, and some foraminifera; this habitat contraction could occur as suddenly as within one year’s time, and occurred even under an emission-stabilizing scenario, just at a later time. “’That inevitability,” said one of the co-authors, Nicole Lovenduski, in an interview for the University of Colorado at Boulder (2019), “along with the lack of time for organisms to adapt, is most concerning.”

It is the rapidity of these anthropogenic changes, “potentially unparalleled” in the last 300 million years (Honisch et al., 2012), that has scientists extremely worried; “analog events” of relatively rapid CO2 release — but far less rapid than the one now underway–include the Paleocene-Ecocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) of 56 million years ago, which resulted in the largest extinction of deep-sea foraminifera in 75 million years, the Triassic-Jurassic (T-J) mass extinction of 200 million years ago, when CO2 levels doubled over 20,000 years, causing an almost total collapse of coral reefs, and the Permian-Triassic extinction of around 250 million years ago, the most severe extinction event since multicellular life evolved. An examination of the reef-building corals that survived the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction of 66 million years ago and those that are presently classified as “of least concern” under the conditions being imposed by the mounting Anthropocene extinction event (Dishon et al., 2020) shows similar “survival” traits possessed by both groups, providing “alarming evidence that reef communities are currently in the process of transforming into disaster communities akin to previous extinction events.”[12] Ocean Deoxygenation

As if ocean acidification isn’t enough to worry about, our brave new Anthropocene is ushering in yet another grave concern: ocean deoxygenation — also a result of our unchecked emission of carbon, but in this case due to the ocean temperature increase it is causing. Many people are aware of the sudden “fish kills” that occur when a pulse of nitrogen- and phosphorus-enriched water, usually from agricultural runoff into surface waters and their outflow tracts, stimulates an algal bloom which then dies and decomposes, lowering the oxygen concentration in the water to a point that fish and other animals are unable to tolerate, but fewer are aware of the growing problem in the open oceans. The open ocean is believed to have lost about two percent of its dissolved oxygen since 1950, and has developed a number of “oxygen-minimum zones” (OMZs) that have expanded by millions of square kilometers over recent decades, now occupying a combined total area around the size of the European Union (see Breitburg et al., 2018).

Warming reduces the solubility of oxygen in water and increases stratification of ocean waters, reducing ventilation, the movement of oxygen from the surface into the interior of the ocean, and often limiting the input of nutrients as well, thereby reducing photosynthesis and thus the production of oxygen in the water. Moreover, just as the amount of oxygen available in seawater is decreasing, the metabolic processes of living organisms that consume oxygen are increasing with rising temperatures, putting the squeeze on many different types of marine life. Species vary in their oxygen requirements and their responses to low oxygen concentration, but alterations in their interactions, feeding habits, and therefore marine food webs are known to be occurring and expected to increase. Lowered oxygen concentration in the water column limits the extent of diel vertical migration, the movement of zooplankton and fish deeper into the ocean in the morning and toward the surface in the evening, compressing their available vertical habitat, reducing suitable habitat for deep-ocean organisms, and restricting some species to shallower waters where they are more vulnerable to predation and fishing pressure.

One of the most serious consequences of ocean deoxygenation is its potential to impair the vision of many marine organisms. The retina, containing photoreceptor cells, is the tissue with the highest metabolic demand in the bodies of terrestrial vertebrates, and hence of highest vulnerability; the need for oxygen is especially high in organisms with “fast” vision, where visual pigments need to regenerate rapidly, including not only fish but cephalopods like the octopus and squid and arthropods that depend on high-speed feeding and escape behavior, all of which may become subject to “visual hypoxia” after a much smaller drop in oxygen concentration than what would be metabolically limiting (McCormick & Levin, 2017). Hypoxia is also thought to be an important factor in the death of corals and their accompanying reef inhabitants. The evidence of increasing ocean deoxygenation as the climate warms is so alarming that a group of scientists and conservationists recently called for awareness of the problem to “extend to all facets of society, beyond the pages of scientific journals” (Earle et al., 2018), and the Kiel Declaration on Ocean Deoxygenation, calling for more marine and climate protection, was issued by over 300 scientists in September of 2018. Marine Heat Waves

Another global-warming-related phenomenon that has recently emerged into common scientific parlance is the occurrence of “marine heat waves,” defined as strings of 5 or more days in which the ocean temperatures in a certain area are in the top 10% of temperatures recorded there over the past three decades. One such “marine heat wave” developed in the Gulf of Alaska in late 2013, a patch of exceptionally warm water a third the size of the continental United States that became nicknamed “the Blob” (see Cornwall, 2019). By the summer of 2015 it had doubled in size to over four million square kilometers, stretching from the waters off Baja California to the Aleutian Islands. with waters up to 2.5°C above normal. A little over a year later, marine food webs all along the western coast of North America were collapsing, with dozens of whales and tens of thousands of seabirds dying and more than 100 million Pacific cod suddenly vanishing.

The disaster apparently began with a ridge of high pressure that held winter storms at bay in the fall of 2013, reducing the effect of winds that usually brought deeper, colder water to the surface in the Gulf, and with them the nutrients the winds typically churn up, leading to a decline in the phytoplankton biomass. The decline in marine plant matter led to a decline in copepods and krill, zooplankton that formed the prey base for small forage fish like capelin and sand lance, which were staples for many seabirds. Only 166 humpback whales returned to Glacier Bay from their tropical calving grounds in the summer of 2015, down 30% from 2013, and all calves born that year were lost, while the bodies of 28 humpbacks and 17 finback whales subsequently washed up along the shoreline from Alaska to British Columbia. Thousands of young California sea lions were stranded on beaches when their mothers were forced to forage farther and farther from the shore in search of food, as many as half a million common murres died of starvation in early 2016, and the cod population dropped by 70% over 2015-2016, finally ‘crashing’ in 2017. It seems likely that what was being witnessed was a crumbling of the marine food web from the bottom upward.

The arrival of cooling La Nina winds at the end of 2016 finally broke the heat wave, stirring up the waters and reversing some of the effects of ‘the Blob.’ But by 2018, only two of five murre colonies seem to be returning to normal breeding levels; only 99 humpbacks returned to Glacier Bay, accompanied by only one calf; and cod numbers were projected to be even lower than the year before. There are some hopeful signs, with some rebounding of copepods and krill and with them forage fish and tiny cod, but the effects of this rebound will have to work their way up food chains. Meanwhile, marine heat waves are becoming more common, the number of days with a marine heat wave present somewhere around the globe having doubled since 1982. Without a major effort to slow down planetary warming, Blob-like temperatures could become typical for the northeast Pacific and perhaps elsewhere by 2050, pushing marine organisms and ecosystems to the limits of their defaunated, already-diminished resilience (Cornwall, 2019).

12.4.2 Plastic, Microplastic and Nanoparticulate Pollution Macroplastics

The amount of plastic produced since 1950 now exceeds six billion tonnes (Chen, 2014), accelerating rapidly over the last decade; annual global production is now said to be around 320 million tonnes annually, with less than 10% ever recycled and about 40% of plastic waste resulting from single-use packaging (see Lavers et al., 2020); as a result of increasing production combined with inadequate ways of dealing with disposal, it is accumulating in the environment and persisting for long periods of time, entangling or blocking the digestive tracts of seabirds, marine mammals, sea turtles and many other species. As one example of a potential population-level impact, significant entrapment of hermit crabs was discovered in plastic debris, with as many as 500,000 crabs dying on the beaches of the uninhabited but “very polluted” Cocos Islands (Lavers et al., 2020); hermit crabs depend on shells retrieved from other animals, and are attracted to the odor of dead conspecifics, which helps them locate empty shells as they become available, but with the addition of this type of anthropogenic waste to their environment, “the very mechanism that evolved to ensure that hermit crabs could replace their shells has resulted in a lethal lure” — one single container was found to contain 526 dead and dying crabs. Since ingested plastic can potentially cause a variety of lethal and sublethal effects, ranging from the toxicity of its component monomers and plasticizers, chemical pollutants adsorbed to plastic surfaces, and micro- and nano-sized fragments interfering with nutrient absorption, entering living tissues, and accumulating at higher trophic levels in marine food webs, there has been a call to recognize plastic as a “persistent marine pollutant” like the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) whose production is largely phased out (Worm et al., 2017).

In round numbers, the amount of plastic washing into the ocean is somewhere between five and 20 million tonnes per year (see Lebreton et al., 2018); a portion of this is swept into the sea and may enter an oceanic gyre, a rotating circular current that traps it in an “accumulation zone” resembling a giant floating island. There are five major ocean gyres, circling in the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, each with its own floating patch of garbage, the North Pacific being the largest. The plastic that ends up in the ocean and along shorelines has to get there somehow, of course, and most of it comes down via riverine systems. According to Schmidt, Krauth, and Wagner (2017), 88% to 95% of all that plastic waste is thought to be coming from just 10 rivers; eight of these plastic-loaded rivers are in Asia and two in Africa, with the Yangtze River in China alone responsible for more than half of this waste stream, dumping an estimated 1.5 million tonnes into the Yellow Sea annually (for a comparison graphic, see Patel, 2019).

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is a mass of largely plastic debris floating in a 1.6 million square kilometer area in the North Pacific Ocean off the coast of North America; it can be seen from the air, and is often pointed out by commercial pilots to interested passengers. Lebreton and colleagues (2018) estimated its total mass to be at least 79,000 tonnes; these scientists collected, classified and quantified the buoyant plastic pieces and particles composing it. Megaplastics, large pieces like fishing gear, were calculated to make up 42,000 tonnes; macroplastics, like crates and plastic bottles, 20,000 tonnes; mesoplastics, in the size range of bottle caps, 10,000 tonnes; and microplastics, 0.05-0.5 cm in diameter, 6,400 tonnes. The microplastics were generally fragments of larger plastic items, dispersed in an estimated 1.7 trillion pieces — in other words, microplastics made up around eight percent of the total mass, but 94% of the total number of pieces. Microplastics

All of the mega-, meso-, and macroplastic pieces accumulating in the oceans are problematic enough, but the microplastic pieces and smaller ones have the scientists particularly worried; they are plastic particles less than 5mm in size (the size of “a grain of rice down to a virus”),[13] generally formed as breakdown products of larger plastic pieces, and are now being discovered to be widely distributed in the air, water, and land around us (A. Thompson 2018a, 2018b, 2019). Extremely high concentrations of microplastic particles were recently found in Arctic sea ice by Ilka Peeken and colleagues (2018), and their findings suggest a larger circulation of them throughout the planet’s oceans, with the sea ice serving as a temporary sink; they speculate that large amounts of microplastics are likely to be released from sea ice as the Arctic meltdown accelerates. Fortunately, so far the concentration of microplastics in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica appears to be much lower, although their presence there at all indicates that marine plastic pollution is ubiquitous — “plastic-free ocean environments are increasingly rare” (Isobe, Uchiyama-Matsumoto & Tokai, 2017). There are disturbing indications that this accumulating mass of microplastics is entering marine food webs. Richard Thompson and colleagues reported finding microscopic plastic particle concentrations steadily increasing in collections of plankton samples dating from the 1960s through the 1990s; these authors demonstrated that microplastic particles were rapidly ingested by various components of marine food webs (R. Thompson et al., 2004). More recently, a group of researchers (Cozar et al., 2014) discovered a “gap” in the expected number of plastic fragments below a few millimeters in size, indicating what appears to be a massive loss of plastic from the surface of the open ocean; the size range of these “lost” plastic particles corresponds with that of zooplankton in the oceans, and plastic particles within this size range are commonly found in the stomachs of small, mesopelagic fish, the most abundant predators of zooplankton in the open ocean and in turn an important part of the prey base for upper trophic levels of the marine community. But perhaps the most serious threat is to the ocean’s large filter-feeders, including the “brainy” morbulids, manta rays and devil rays, as well as whale sharks and baleen whales (Germanov et al., 2018); supporting their large bodies on tiny zooplankton, they must swallow hundreds to thousands of cubic meters of seawater daily, and therefore must be taking in microplastics both directly from the water and indirectly from their contaminated prey. According to lead author Elitza Germanov, “It is vital to understand the effects of microplastic pollution on ocean giants, since nearly half of the morbulid rays, two thirds of filter-feeding sharks, and over one quarter of baleen whales are listed by the IUCN as globally threatened species and are prioritized for conservation” (see Gaworecki, 2018).

Revealing a major source of microplastic contamination in North America, a study of municipal wastewater treatment plant effluent from 17 facilities across the US found that, on average, each is releasing over four million microparticles per day, leading researchers to estimate that somewhere between 3 and 23 billion particles of microplastic are being released in US waterways through municipal wastewater per day overall (Mason et al., 2016), polluting lakes and rivers before making it into the oceans. High levels of microplastics, mostly in the form of fibers shed from synthetic fabrics, were also found in treated wastewater in Paris, as well as substantial levels in the River Seine (Dris et al., 2015). Not all microplastic particles that end up in rivers, lakes and oceans are from the breakdown of larger-sized pieces of plastic, however; many facial cleansers, cosmetics, toothpaste, and other personal care products contain intentionally produced plastic particles, most less than 1 millimeter in size, that escape wastewater treatment plants and can reach the oceans (Fendall & Sewall, 2009); one study estimated between 4,000 and 95,000 microbeads could be released in a single use of a facial scrub (Napper, 2015). Nanoparticulates

If we don’t know much about what the microplastics are doing to our bodies, there’s an even bigger unknown out there: microplastics may eventually degrade all the way down into ‘nanoplastics,’ plastic pieces in the ‘nano’ size range of a few billionths of a meter, several millionths of the size of a “microparticle.” This is getting down to the size range of single atoms and molecules, and particles in this size range often have unusual properties that can be quite different from their properties in the larger size ranges, properties with largely unknown effects on living systems. So far, scientists have not found a good way to quantify the amount of nanoparticulate plastic in the oceans and surface waters, although they assume that, the smaller the particle, the more of them are going to be out there; they are just beginning to attempt assessing the effects that anthropogenic nanoparticulates have on living organisms, but they do know that particles this small can easily penetrate living tissues. Antarctic krill have been shown capable of ingesting microplastics (less than 5mm in diameter) and breaking them down into nanoplastics (less than 1 micrometer in size) through digestive fragmentation, a process possibly shared by other zooplankton (Dawson et al., 2018). The breakdown of larger pieces of plastic is not the only source of nanoparticulate contamination of aquatic and marine ecosystems, however; sunscreens containing engineered nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are polluting beaches, with the potential to harm marine and aquatic organisms.

Dr. Jerome Labille discovered that almost 70 kilograms of sunblock cream was deposited at one small beach in the south of France visited by about 3000 people daily, amounting to more than 1.8 tonnes over the summer season, and releasing around almost 2 kg of titanium dioxide daily, or over 50 kg for the summer, much of it expected to accumulate on the littoral zone, affecting seaside wildlife of various kinds (AAAS Eurekalert! 17 Aug. 2018). Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have long been used as sunblockers in traditional, ‘bulk’ formulations and are considered inert and harmless, but questions about the safety of their ‘nano’ formulations have been raised; they reportedly can cause adverse effects in living organisms, largely through the generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), resulting in cellular damage and possible genotoxicity and nanoparticle-sized titanium dioxide (nTiO2) has been classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” via inhalation (see Skocaj et al., 2011). Since so little is yet known about the effects, and there are problems with informed consent, monitoring and controlling the material after release to the public, and the proportionality of hazards versus benefits, Jacobs, van de Poel and Osseweijer (2010) have called the marketing of nTiO2 an ethically undesirable “social experiment.” In the marine environment, nTiO2 has been found to bioaccumulate in the gills and digestive glands of clams, suggesting “a potential risk for filter-feeding animals” (Ilaria, 2018). Both inorganic (titanium and zinc oxides) and various organic sunscreens have been found to have deleterious effects on phytoplankton, which carries out the preponderance of photosynthesis going on in the oceans and thus make up the base of virtually the entire oceanic food web (Tovar-Sanchez et al., 2013).

PART II: The Human Footprint

Virtually everyone who has looked into the matter agrees that the two ‘ultimate drivers’ of our global ecological crises are continuing human population growth — which most people don’t want to talk about — and continuing economic growth, leading to out-of-control consumption of  ‘resources’ — which pretty much nobody wants to give up. The human footprint, our species’ overall ecological impact, classically has been formulated as I = PAT, where P represents the size of the human population, A stands for affluence, a measure of our average per capita consumption of resources, and T is the technology factor, able to increase or reduce the product of the other two factors — the primary drivers — somewhat (see Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971 for the classic paper). These two drivers, population and consumption, and the “economic growth” that fuels the latter, need to be considered in more detail in order to get a grasp of what’s actually happening in the “war” we are currently waging against nature.

12.5 The Human Footprint: Population

To have an intelligent conversation about population, the first thing everybody needs to understand is the mathematics of exponential growth; our collective inability to understand this has been called “the greatest shortcoming of the human race” by renowned physics teacher Albert Bartlett (Bartlett, 1969; also see Bartlett, 1978, especially parts 2–4).[14] It’s the basic way to describe the growth of biological populations when not subjected to negative feedback, but the mathematics applies to anything growing steadily at a constant rate, represented as a percentage of the total, per unit of time — including, in the abstract world, money growing at a certain rate of interest, as will be considered in Section 12.7. The relationship between the rate of growth–the added numbers over a given period of time described as a fraction of the total number in the population at the beginning of that interval — and the time it takes for the population to double in size — the ‘doubling time’ — can be worked out mathematically in terms of the natural logarithm of 2, but it can be approximated as doubling time = 70/growth rate in percent. Thus, if a population is growing at five percent per year, then its doubling time will be 70 divided by five or 14 years. The important thing about exponential growth, however, is that it can kind of sneak up on you. If you try to graph the growth over time, you don’t get a straight line, as you would if the relationship were linear, you get what some call a ‘J-curve,’ a line like a recumbent ‘J’ that curves upward, appearing to shoot off into space as the exponential function approaches infinity. The reason it does this, of course, is that, for every new interval of time, the base which will be multiplied by the percent growth rate is a little larger than it was before, so the number that will be added over the next interval will be larger, and so on and so on.

An example often used to illustrate the ‘sneakiness’ of this kind of growth is the case of an exotic waterweed growing on a pond; the waterweed has a doubling time of one day and is capable of covering the entire pond within 30 days. For the first three weeks after it is introduced, the floating pondweed is barely noticeable, and it hardly attracts attention even after four weeks have gone by; the people living along the shoreline aren’t too concerned about it, saying they will only do something when it covers half of the pond’s surface. On what day will that be? The answer, of course, is on the 29th day — once a ‘base’ of reproducing plants has built up, the takeover occurs very quickly, catching the locals by surprise. A similar but more telling example is a bacterial sample inoculated onto the nutrient medium in a sterile petri dish. When the plate is incubated at a favorable temperature, the number of bacterial cells follows a typical J-curve, their population slowly growing from a tiny speck into visible circular colonies that spread across the agar, enjoying luxurious growth amid a seemingly infinite amount of nutrients, free from predators, competitors, and pathogens. Over time, however, nutrients run thin while harmful metabolic wastes build up; with no other kinds of organisms present to recycle wastes back into nutrients, bacterial growth stalls, and then the number of living bacterial cells drops rather precipitously as the colony reaches the finite limits of the plate.

The example has been used to illustrate the risk we humans run as we proceed to take over the surface of the Earth, simplifying ecosystems by eliminating more and more of the ‘other’ kinds of organisms whose ecological roles include breaking down our wastes and producing nutrients we can use, even as our numbers continue to climb. The standard reply of uncritical optimists has been that this won’t be a problem because ‘we humans are a lot smarter than bacteria,’ but unfortunately this is yet to be demonstrated at the global level. In the big picture, our species’ growth certainly looks as if it followed a J-curve. Our numbers stood at under one billion throughout all of our evolutionary history up until around 1800 or so, when they started to turn upward as the Industrial Revolution got underway; they then shot up steeply after 1950[15] in what is known as the “Great Acceleration,” as discussed in Section 12.1. Our global population was reportedly 7.6 billion in mid-2018, and it had an overall rate of natural increase of 1.2 % per year (Population Reference Bureau, 2018) — which, by the straight math, would give a doubling time of around 58 years, yielding a total of over 15 billion people on the planet by the last quarter of the 21st century. When projections are made, however, our overall growth rate is generally assumed to be falling, and since its highs during the 1950s and 60s–which resulted in a doubling of the total from three billion in 1960 to over six billion in 2000 — it has been falling in many places around the world, but not everywhere. An overall increase of 28% is expected by 2050, adding around 2.2 billion for a total of 9.8 billion (PRB, 2019); a different projection yielded 11.2 billion for 2100 (UNDESA, 2017). Given our human capacity for exercising choice over what we do — a capacity that’s frequently overlooked in these modeling studies — the number we will actually add is up for grabs; what will not be up for grabs, however, is the fact that each additional human will come with certain needs and ‘demands,’ and that the cumulative impact of these will largely determine the state of the Biosphere in 2050, in 2100, or any other future time.

One important concept to keep in mind when considering human population growth is the demographic transition — the change a society makes, with the help of modern sanitation, vaccination, and other public-health-related procedures, when it goes from having a high birth rate and a high death rate to having a low death rate and subsequently a low birth rate, a changeover that many presently industrialized countries made early in the 20th century. A second important concept is what is known as demographic momentum, the fact that the growth rate of a population at any given time will reflect its current age structure, such that populations having a large percentage of young people will continue to grow in size for many years even if the average number of children born per woman (the total fertility rate or TFR) lowers to replacement level, as this large cohort enters reproductive age, begins contributing to the population, and then lives alongside its children and grandchildren.

Brazil, for example, like much of Latin America, underwent a demographic transition between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s, with its total fertility rate falling from an average of 5.4 children born per woman in the late 1960s to an average of 1.9 by 2010, below replacement level. Its population is continuing to grow, however, because of the large number of children born during the high-growth years, who are reproducing now and will be continuing to bear children for some time to come; if current rates continue, the population of the Amazon region is thus expected to double in less than 30 years (Williams, 2011). Sub-Saharan Africa, however, is said to be “the youngest region in the world” (Madsen, 2013), and the demographic transition is said to have “stalled” in many of its countries; with 46% of Middle Africa’s population under 15 years of age (PRB, 2019), there is enormous demographic momentum built into it. In 2018 this part of the world had a total population of slightly over one billion, an overall average rate of increase of 2.7% per year, and the highest TFRs in the world, with Nigeria (already maintaining a population base of over 400 million) averaging 5.5 children per woman: Mali 6.0, Angola 6.2, the Democratic Republic of Congo 6.3, Chad 6.4 and Niger an astonishing 7.2 (Population Data Sheet, 2018) — a figure that came down to seven by 2019; increases of one to two billion people are expected by 2050 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria alone (PRB, 2019). Contraceptive use among married women is very low in these countries, partly from lack of knowledge and/or availability, but also preference or cultural expectation; in Chad and Niger, married women reportedly will state that an ideal family size can include up to nine children (Madsen, 2013).

A reason often given for desiring such a large family size is to ensure that some children will be able to provide care for parents as they age, but the extent to which this now proves true is questionable, as increasing populations are less and less able to support themselves within deteriorating ecosystems and many young people are forced to migrate to urban centers. In Madagascar, even though the population growth rate has fallen from 2.9%, with a TFR of 4.6 children per woman, in 2013 to 2.6% and 4.1 in 2018, people are leaving the overpopulated interior of the island and migrating to the coasts; there, however, they are finding that “the number of people who are going out to catch fish to feed their families is going up exponentially, and those fishermen are having to work harder and harder to catch smaller fish that are farther and farther down the food web,” according to Dr. Vic Mohan (Williams et al., 2012).[16] As has been pointed out by many, to slow this growth and eventually stabilize the human population, advances in women’s and children’s rights, improving the position of women in society, and securing for them a basic education and access to contraception and family planning services are needed worldwide. Education for women is considered the key, since the number of children a woman will have has been shown generally to vary inversely with the number of years of education she has attained. Moreover, if unintended pregnancies — those not planned or unwanted–could be minimized around the world, the overall fertility rate would decline substantially. A little-known statistic that is somewhat shocking in its significance is that the percentage of unintended pregnancies is highest in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean–where they may make up more than 50% of all pregnancies (Crist et al., 2017).

Human population growth in or around most any relatively ‘natural’ area usually results in decreasing biodiversity, but continuing population growth is particularly problematic for the biodiversity ‘hotspots’ around the world, regions identified as conservation priorities for having both very high concentrations of species diversity, with many species found nowhere else in the world, and also very high levels of habitat fragmentation and extinction threat, threats that are often related to high human population densities.[17] It is also a concern for the three major tropical wilderness areas (TWAs) — the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, and New Guinea and its associated archipelago — high biodiversity areas that just a few decades ago were mostly intact, with relatively low human population densities (usually less than 5 people per square kilometer), and that were expected to be “storehouses of biodiversity” that could serve as “controls” for the hotspots, as well as places where indigenous peoples are said to “have any hope of maintaining their traditional lifestyles” (Mittermeier et al. 1998, 2008).[18] By 2010, the hotspots were estimated to contain almost 1.5 billion people, with an average density of 99 per square kilometer, while the average population density in the TWAs had increased to 13 per sq km; their population growth rates, moreover, were averaging three percent per year, more than twice the rate in the hotspots–all worrisome numbers, given that “the livelihood and resource demands for most of those people likely came from within the respective hotspots or TWAs” (Williams, 2011).[19]

The famous I=PAT Equation, referred to earlier, is a thumbnail sketch of how the size of the human population can be related to its environmental impact: basically, the impact is the product of the number of human beings multiplied by the average amount each person in a given society “consumes” from the (local and global) environment, adjusted by whatever technologies enable them to consume this much. The relationship is somewhat intuitive, and the expression was not meant to be quantitative, but rather to convey an overall qualitative relationship that seems pretty hard to deny (although some may try). Lest it be taken too literally, however, to mean that impact simply increases linearly as population increases, John Harte (2007) details a number of ways in which the relationship can be dynamic and nonlinear. Consider, for example, the effect of a temperature rise above 80 °F in a well-off community, triggering the use of air conditioning, thus increasing electricity usage and fossil fuel consumption and setting off a positive feedback hastening yet more planetary warming, an effect that will grow in proportion to population size. Or consider the highways and other infrastructural connections between three cities — aspects of the built environment that may make life easier for people but much more difficult for wildlife, directly causing mortality, cutting up blocks of habitat and interfering with migration patterns and breeding opportunities for many species; with just three cities, three roads can connect them, but as the population grows, the original three cities will increase in size while three new ones may spring up, necessitating twelve or more interconnections, severely fragmenting the terrain and possibly eliminating the larger-bodied and more sensitive species. Moreover, “rising numbers impede governance and problem-solving,” Harte cautions, so we may find ourselves in “an intensifying downward spiral.” So far, people in many places have accepted these “shifting baselines” and been able to adjust, but the cumulative effects are likely to be catching up with us as we approach 2050.

Attempts have been made to quantify various aspects of the relationship between human population growth and climate change. At the individual level, Paul Murtaugh and Michael Schlax (2009) calculated that one extra child born to a woman in the United States increases her ‘carbon legacy’ into the future by an additional 9,441 tonnes of CO2, 5.7 times her own contribution; Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas (2017) used their calculations to conclude that having one fewer child would have far and away the greatest impact, coming in ahead of living car-free, avoiding air travel and eating a plant-based diet, which also made their list of top recommended actions. In a macro-level study with serious implications for future global trends, Michael Raupach and colleagues (2007) utilized a formula in some ways similar to the IPAT equation to separate out global and regional drivers of the growth in CO2 emissions from 1980 through 2004; their report’s Figure 5 is especially telling. It is noted that the “developing and least developed” regions of the globe, inhabited by 80% of the world’s population, accounted for only 23% of global cumulative emissions, but were responsible for 41% of emissions in 2004, and accounted for 73% of global emissions growth; they state “Fig. 5 has implications for long-term global equity and for burden sharing in global responses to climate change,” letting their readers draw any further conclusions.

A number of modeling studies have utilized the general form of the IPAT relationship with the addition of some social and economic indices to make projections of future carbon emissions[20]; of particular interest here is study by Noah Scovronick and colleagues (2017) utilizing an updated version of “a leading cost-benefit climate-economy model (CEM)” — the same basic kind of modeling done by the IPCC[21] in its “integrated assessment models” (IAMs), which will be considered in more detail in section 12.7 — to examine how “cost-sensitive” mitigation decisions will be affected by the size of the human population and also by what they call “population ethics.” Under the latter heading they explore how “two approaches to valuing population,” total utilitarianism (TU) and average utilitarianism (AU), can lead to considerably different outcomes. As this thinking goes, an ‘average’ utilitarian, such as John Stuart Mill, takes as the ethical aim maximizing the average happiness (termed utility) of a given group of people, while a “total” utilitarian, supposedly following the thinking of Jeremy Bentham, seeks “the greatest good for the greatest number,” understood as getting the total amount of “utility” to be the greatest it can possibly be, overall. As interpreted today, this may mean maximizing the total number of people, even at the expense of their average happiness. Since attaining this goal may result in a very large population composed of people whose individual life experience may be only very slightly positive, the upshot of this line of thinking has been termed “The Repugnant Conclusion”[22] (see Parfit 1984). Scovronick et al. just happen to note that all of the leading climate-economy models that try to optimize for costs share a total utilitarian (TU) social welfare function rather than an average utilitarian (AU) one, revealing an important aspect of why much of the prevailing thinking in “global governance” circles today is unable to slow our progression into worsening climate change.

The fact that these and other studies of the relationship between human population growth and carbon emissions are being done at all, however, makes the absence of recognition of the importance of population size all the more glaring in recent IPCC reports and most international environmental discourse. Moreover, if utilitarian, and especially TU-type thinking, is already built into the assumptions of the modeling programmes, then just what is being valued, and how, should not only be made explicit but should be open to public input and academic debate. None of this appears to be happening, however; it seems, that the topic of our ever-increasing population has become one of those “elephants in the room” of which Eviatar Zerubavel speaks, as discussed in Chapter 11. Martha Campbell explores some of the factors leading to this peculiar situation in “Why the Silence on Population?” (2007). As she explains, rapid population growth and some of its accompanying problems garnered world attention in the 1960s and 70s, and the adoption of “family planning” measures–providing information about and access to modern contraception methods that had recently become available — began to show success in reducing population growth rates in many places. By the 1990s, however, an active avoidance of the issue had appeared in many academic and policy circles, apparently including some quite central to setting the international agenda for our trajectory into the Anthropocene.

Campbell identifies six contributory factors creating a “perfect storm” shoving the issue off the table by the early 2000s. Birth rates had come down in many places, while consumption in the industrialized countries had grown enormously, clearly outpacing that of the less developed regions even though their populations were growing more slowly; meanwhile, family planning funds were being diverted into the fight against HIV/AIDS, and conservative pro-natalist groups were becoming more influential, while the academic community was in the grip of a theory holding that some external factor was needed to make couples opt for smaller families. But the sixth and perhaps most effective factor in silencing serious discussion of the need to limit our population growth was a matter of social psychology; a certain way of thinking came to be roped off from acceptable discourse, inside and outside of academic and policymaking circles, by means of the taboo-ification of certain terms and even the creation of particular epithets to be hurled at violators of the prohibition. Northern consumption patterns were placed in the crosshairs as a substitute target “at Cairo,” the UN’s 4th International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994 — not undeservedly, but this was followed by an effort to paint all family planning efforts with the broad brush of coercion, despite the fact that, as Campbell claims (2007), “the vast majority of family planning programmes were designed to make family planning easier for women and men to obtain, not to force them to control their fertility.” The new term reproductive health was introduced to supersede the term family planning, but it also served to make the latter politically incorrect, often along with the word ‘population’ itself, and people who still employed the older vocabulary were saddled with derogatory adjectives like ‘neo-Malthusian’; with adoption of the position that “macro-level data was conducive to inhumane approaches in reducing birth rates,” she claims, it became unacceptable to consider issues from this big-picture perspective at all (Campbell & Bedford, 2009).

Unfortunately, it seems that much of this enforced silence on population issues is still around today. Calling out the mass psychology propping up “The Last Taboo,” however, Julia Whitty (2010), a woman of Indian heritage, expresses concerns about India’s increasing desertification and declining crop yields and maintains that “the root cause of India’s dwindling resources and escalating pollution is the same: the continued exponential growth of humankind.” As she explains, in 2010 India had 1.17 billion people — 17% of humanity–trying to live on less than 2.5% of the Earth’s land, and was facing an additional growth of “400 million to 2 billion” by 2050. Unafraid to take on the macro-level issues, she illustrates her article with the dramatic J-curve of our global population growth and our surging ecological footprint, and she observes that, while human rights activists found the conservationists’ take of “people vs nature” to be “simplistic and even racist” in failing to address problems of poverty and injustice, she notes that these activists “in turn have tended to deny the limits of growth,” which Whitty refuses to overlook. She recounts the stages of the “demographic transition” — the first a state of high birth rate offset by high death rate, the second a stage of rapid population growth as the death rate falls below the birth rate, and the third a state of low birthrate back in balance with the lowered death rate, often linked with women’s education and economic improvement; she then points to the lamentable literacy rate of women in India — only 54% in 2010 — and makes the prediction that “whether we are a world of 8, 9.1, or 10.5 billion people in 2050 will be decided in no small part by the number of illiterate women on Earth.” The fourth stage in the demographic transition, she continues, is a “stable and aging population,” but she notes a recent study identifying a fifth stage, a reversal of the long-established relationship between economic development and reduced fertility (see Myrskyla et al., 2009), which, she remarks, is “good news for those who worry about Social Security deficits, but bad news for those who worry about societal security on a planet with finite resources.” Whitty dares to ask, “how much has our silence around population growth contributed to the emergence of this fifth demographic stage?” — and she says she’s looking forward to “the sixth stage in our demographic maturity: the transition from 20th-century family planning to 21st-century civilizational planning.”

There is, however, one final point to be considered under the population issue, one that, from the perspective of this point in time, seems so glaring that one must wonder if it lies at the heart of the ‘elephant in the room,’ denial that there could be a ‘population problem.’ With the blossoming of truly amazing scientific knowledge about almost everything, an obvious moral buffer between us and the absolute limits of the Earth is emerging into view, given that questions about population size are ultimately value questions. The silence surrounding it is even louder and heavier than that surrounding the p-word itself, since at those rare times when human population growth does make it to center stage it is usually framed, as pointed out by Eileen Crist (2012), in terms of the question “how many people can the Earth support?” — the assumption being, of course, that supporting people is the only purpose the Earth is meant to serve; what else might there be?

Such silencing phenomena are often efforts to maintain collective denial over a shared sense of moral culpability, as discussed in Chapter 11. Yes, there may be evolutionarily-instilled factors that also militate against open recognition of the need to limit population growth of one’s own “group,” however defined; in addition to the natural desire of many people to have children, bigger groups can defend themselves, and have generally been able to get away with bullying smaller ones, going way back. But our collective silence on the population issue may mask an even greater desire to avoid confronting the reality of what our burgeoning numbers inescapably mean on the ground: that there is less and less room for nonhuman life, that many of the ongoing ways in which we displace nonhumans are filled with brutality and suffering, and that nonhuman lives are filled with inner subjective experience — and therefore are often filled with terror and loss, as we perpetrate an “Animal Armageddon” across the planet. What else might there be for the Earth to support, besides more people? The myriad other living beings that those additional people will squeeze right out of existence, that’s what. Can we see them now?

Eileen Crist insists that we see them, as well as the socially-reinforced silencing that surrounds it, noting “The ongoing and escalating genocide of nonhumans is shrouded in silence, a silence signifying disregard for the vanquished. […] Silence is how power disdains to talk about their extinction.” (Crist, 2012, p. 142). She believes the term anthropocentrism is much “too feeble and academic” to describe what has given rise to this genocidal project, describing it as “the open or tacit stance of human supremacy, ” a stance that “manifests most clearly in the attitude of total entitlement” — an entitlement “that can hardly be challenged because it claims both consensual power and morality on its side (Crist, 2012). And perhaps this entitlement is nowhere more evident than in the exhortations against abortion, wherein the life of a single-celled embryo — because it is a human embryo (and despite the fact that, during development, its fundamental relatedness to all other animal life on the planet can be seen very clearly[23]) — is presumed to be of inestimable value, while all the nonhuman lives that will be displaced by its being brought fully into the world are counted for nothing, and are deemed not even worthy of mention. It is only with the arrogance of such entitlement that pronatalists can profess to be ‘pro-life’ — as if the only ‘life’ that has a value is so obviously human life that the word needs no qualification.

We still have a choice, Crist maintains, between “Resource Earth” and “Abundant Earth,” the former with a human population of many billions and little else, the latter with a declining human population that is able to make room for rebounding numbers of wild nonhumans in all their diversity and complexity. All it would take to set us on the path to Abundant Earth is more and more women choosing to limit their childbearing — “an elegant solution — and not an authoritarian one, because in a global human society actually awakened to the precipice of Life’s collapse, many women and men may well choose none, while others choose one, and a few choose two” (Crist, 2012). On the second path, by 2100 we could be on the way to a human population eventually leveling off around two billion, in the ballpark of what has been estimated would be the “optimum human population size,” where there would be enough for all life to flourish (see Daily et al., 1994). One thing is clear — we need to start talking about population again, and all its consequences that we’ve been denying. It’s time to change the conversation.

12.6 The Human Footprint: Consumption

12.6.1 Sustaining the Human Population

When ‘consumption’ has been discussed in environmental contexts, attention has usually focused on the consumption of energy and material goods, largely derived from ‘resources’ that have been translocated from the ‘developing’ world to the ‘developed’ one and used to make the stuff the people there ‘demand’ to have, whether they need it or not — a ‘demand’ that has been fueled to a great extent by marketing efforts aimed at increasing the circulation of money (see Section 12.7). However, from our perspective here in the early Anthropocene, it appears that this conversation needs to be updated in several ways. It is becoming clear that industrial culture has penetrated virtually every region of the globe, fueling desires and ‘demands’ for this high-consumption lifestyle everywhere in its wake, and with the increasing money-based affluence that absorption into the global economic system has brought about in many ‘developing’ countries (one must ask — what are they ‘developing’ into?), more and more of these demands are being met by rapidly increasing ‘consumption’ worldwide. While this change may be good news with respect to alleviating human poverty and decreasing inequality among subgroupings of our human species, increasing the per capita consumption of what is now a very large human population is taking an even more devastating toll on nonhuman populations worldwide. Moreover, as the human population continues to grow while the planetary changes we have already set in motion take effect, simply feeding people around the world is going to become increasingly difficult, let alone supplying everyone with the ‘stuff’ they have been conditioned to think they need; therefore, the focus of this section will be primarily on the food that we consume and the impacts on ‘nature’ of providing it, as well as some other products that come directly from the wild.

It must be acknowledged that people of the ‘developed’ world have historically been responsible for the greatest share of consumption overall, as well as the largest amount of emitted carbon, and they still maintain the highest per capita energy consumption at present. However, the ‘developing’ world, considered altogether, has now taken the lead in energy consumption, with China becoming the largest global energy consumer in 2011, and the second largest consumer of oil — second only to the United States–as well as the largest producer, consumer, and importer of coal, accounting for almost half of global coal consumption for at least five years (EIA, 2015). The entire Asia-Pacific region taken together, moreover, was utilizing about 42% of the world’s energy consumption by 2015, about equal to that of North America, Europe and Eurasia combined (Ritchie & Roser, 2019), and its share of the global oil and gas trade is being projected, based on present trends, to rise to around 65% by 2040 (EIA, 2018), with per capita energy use expected to increase by 46% (Woody, 2013). This changing ratio of energy use can be seen as correcting an inequitable balance among nations, but again, on the macro level, if historical inequalities are to be rectified by simply demanding more for everybody from the global environment, we will be substantially increasing the likelihood of seriously destabilizing the Earth system as a whole.

It seems that, once we humans become accustomed to living with certain luxuries and conveniences, we ‘shift our baselines’ and become very resistant to the notion that we should cut back on these apparent improvements that we have learned to take for granted, even if we understand intellectually that there are very good reasons why we should. A thought-provoking article by David Owen in The New Yorker (2010) examines humanity’s track record — which, in the face of continually improving technological ‘efficiencies,’ shows us doing nothing but consuming more, more and more — a phenomenon that’s been termed the Jevons paradox.[24] And as ‘efficiencies’ in many technologies have made prices fall at the same time that convenience and accessibility have risen, our collective consumption of energy and many other things has steadily expanded, in a way that is rather frightening when we allow ourselves to look at the larger situation. Take refrigeration, for instance. As Owen explains, the average refrigerator in 2010 was reportedly 20% larger than it was in 1975, used 75% less energy and cost 60% less; sounds great, but if we shift our perspective to the macro-level, we discover that “the global market for refrigeration has burgeoned” along with its contribution to energy consumption and carbon emissions. Refrigerators didn’t come into widespread use until around the middle of the 20th century, and then they were generally modest metal boxes — before that, people used ‘iceboxes’ or found other ways of preserving whatever food wasn’t eaten fresh. Now expectations in suburban America run to enormous side-by-side refrigerator-freezers with on-demand ice machines that ‘everybody’s gotta have,’ and the energy that could have been saved by all the ‘efficiency’ gains is going to satisfy the incessant demand for more — more volume, more convenience and more food kept past its due date before finally being thrown away; “coincidentally or not,” Owen observes, “the growth of American refrigerator volume has been roughly paralleled by the growth of American body-mass index.”

But surely, refrigeration has led to improvements in diets and health all around the world; how could we deny that its development and proliferation has been a good thing? “Refrigerators,” Owen explains, “are the fraternal twins of air-conditioners, which use the same energy-hungry compressor technology to force heat to do something that nature doesn’t want it to.” In 1960, 88% of homes in the US did not have air conditioning — and of course nobody had it before the 20th century, demonstrating that human life can go on without it — but by the mid-2000s, with efficiency driving down the cost of their production and operation, the percentages were roughly reversed, with almost 90% of homes having air conditioning, mostly central air, the consequence being that “we now use roughly as much electricity to cool buildings as we did for all purposes in 1955.” And air conditioning is not just for the developed world anymore — air conditioner use tripled in China between 1997 and 2007, he reports, and it was estimated to have accounted for 40% of electricity consumption in Mumbai in 2009, with India’s use projected to increase tenfold between 2005 and 2020. Economists generally see this ‘efficiency dilemma’ in monetary terms — if you increase the efficiency of producing something, the price goes down, and the demand for it goes up — a good thing within their conceptual framework. But in the real, three-dimensional world, the human population everywhere is increasing all the time, insidiously multiplying the effect of our demand for more — so, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we can all watch as unprecedented heatwaves blanket North America, Europe and Asia, and contemplate all those air conditioners giving temporary relief while applying strong positive feedback toward worsening our predicament.

The global food supply is an often-overlooked type of ‘consumption’ much more fundamental to our human lives than the energy to run our air conditioners, however. To understand its effect on the natural world, we first need to recognize our massive appropriation of the net primary production (NPP) of the Biosphere. The NPP is basically ‘the total food resource on Earth’ — what’s left after the plants sustain themselves for all the other organisms that can’t make their own food the way plants do — and the proportion appropriated for human use was originally calculated to be nearly 40% of the terrestrial NPP (Vitousek et al., 1986); this “human appropriation of net primary production” (HANPP) was recalculated by Haberl, Erl and Krausmann (2014) and revised downward to around 25%, but it was still noted to have doubled over the course of the 20th century, reflecting “large increases in land use efficiency” while still incurring “considerable” ecological costs (Krausmann et al., 2013).

We have the Green Revolution to thank for allowing us to sustain our massive population increase over the 20th century, increasing the amount of biomass nature has been able to produce utilizing the sun’s energy by making substantial energy inputs of our own; the Haber-Bosch process for artificially fixing nitrogen, industrially scaled up in 1910, has been called “the detonator of the population explosion” (Smil, 1999). Primary agricultural production globally only makes up somewhere in the range of 2%-6% of the world’s total energy consumption (FAO, 2011), while the rest of food-sector energy consumption — altogether accounting for about 30% of the world’s total energy consumption–goes to things like processing, distribution, refrigeration, preparation, and retailing, which presumably includes advertising and other marketing (see Woods et al., 2010). On the other hand, agriculture is becoming increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, primarily required for energy-intensive inputs like pesticides and nitrogen fertilizer — the latter requiring large amounts of natural gas for its production, a demand that has increased at least sixfold over recent decades — so much so that the FAO appears to be quite worried about how we will manage to feed our expected population increase, especially in view of our looming long-range greenhouse gas ceiling and the short-term volatility of the fossil fuel market.

Clark and Tilman (2017) observed that “global agriculture feeds over 7 billion people, but is also a leading cause of environmental degradation”; agricultural activities account for between one-fourth and one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions, occupy over 40% of the Earth’s land surface, are responsible for more than 70% of freshwater withdrawals, and drive deforestation, habitat fragmentation and biodiversity loss. Modern agricultural systems inject a tremendous amount of nitrogen and phosphorus into the global system every year, so much so that our interference with their global cycling constitutes one of the “planetary boundaries” that Johan Rockstrom says we shouldn’t be crossing, as discussed in Section 12.1; a little less than half of added nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) reportedly is taken up by crops in the field; much of the rest finds its way into rivers and lakes, causing eutrophication, causing algae blooms and deoxygenated ‘dead zones,’ as well as acidifying water bodies and soils. Moreover, unlike the nitrogen incorporated into fertilizer, which can be produced industrially from nitrogen gas that is abundant in the air, the phosphorus used in fertilizer is derived from phosphate rock, posing a surprisingly little-appreciated problem; phosphate rock is a non-renewable resource that may be depleted within 50–100 years (Cordell et al., 2009).

In addition to these specific threats, however, planetary-system level worries are emerging that have direct consequences for our human security. Thomas Homer-Dixon and colleagues (2015), considered the possibility that “synchronous failure” in several separate social-ecological systems could interact to cause “a far larger intersystemic crisis” that could then “rapidly propagate across multiple system boundaries to the global scale” and potentially “quickly degrade humanity’s condition.” As they explain, while the global GDP increased by a factor of almost 20 since the 1950s, this seeming achievement was made possible by a sevenfold increase in the withdrawal of resources from natural systems and the injection of wastes back into them, thus leaving many of these natural systems “under enormous strain” and eroding the resilience of the entire planetary system, making it more likely that a major crisis in one part of the system will affect all other parts. Nystrom and colleagues (2019) name the emerging anthropogenic artifact that feeds us the “global production ecosystem” (GPE), an entity that is “homogeneous, highly connected and characterized by weakened internal feedbacks,” constructed “to yield high and predictable supplies of biomass in the short term, but create conditions for novel and pervasive risks to emerge and interact in the longer term.”

These authors evaluate the resilience of the GPE with respect to three key features: connectivity, diversity, and feedback. With the huge recent expansion in global trade and increasing socioeconomic connectivity, production ecosystems are increasingly connected across continents and oceans; exports of soybeans and palm oil to markets in China, the US and the EU, increasingly to feed livestock, are driving deforestation across the tropics, while declining fisheries in one place shift fishing pressure to another or to aquaculture, itself increasingly in need of crop-based feed. With consolidation of entire supply chains reinforcing “global homogenization of species,” crop diversity suffers; biodiverse tropical forests are replaced by extensive monocultures, with a shift toward a “globally standardized food supply based on a few crop types,” such as maize, wheat, and rice–leaving large numbers of people vulnerable to pathogen-induced crop failure. In decoupling the GPE from natural feedback processes, crucial feedback processes that have regulated and maintained the Earth System are increasingly weakened; when one type of resource becomes depleted or one ecosystem degraded, instead of responding to reduce the destabilizing processes, the global production system simply moves on to drain resources and exploit ecosystems elsewhere. The entire Earth is thus kept “in a forced state through intensification” so as to maintain “a high and predictable global supply of biomass,” while the increasing loss of resilience of the system is being “masked at a global level, thus increasing the risk of shifting the GPE into an unknown state” (Nystrom et al., 2019).[25] Moreover, the frequency of “food production shocks” — sudden losses to food production — has been increasing over time, mainly due to “geopolitical and extreme weather events,” according to Richard Cottrell and associates (2019), and adding to these concerns, a report by the London-based research firm Chatham House (Bailey & Wellesley, 2017) has identified 14 chokepoints — “the junctures along shipping and overland trade routes through which transit especially high volumes of commodities” in the food transport network that are especially vulnerable to disruption — all but one of which have been closed or disrupted at least once over the last 15 years. The impact of the spreading coronavirus pandemic on our global food supply chains is yet to be determined.

Meanwhile, virtually every recent article addressing agricultural production begins with a nod to the huge increase in global food production that will be needed by 2050 — as well as a growing ‘demand’ for meat. Almost all of them also make mention, however — if hidden somewhere in the body of the document — of the possibility that we humans might drastically cut back on our consumption of meat, and the difference this could make; the Chatham report, for example, notes (p. 30) that, should this occur, “the vast volumes of soybean and maize grown and traded to support livestock production could decline dramatically.” Striking differences were revealed in comparisons of the environmental impacts of different foods, for example, in Clark and Tilman’s (2017) life cycle assessment of over 700 agricultural systems: “for all indicators examined, ruminant meat (beef, goat, and lamb/mutton) had impacts 20-100 times those of plants, while milk, eggs, pork, poultry and seafood had impacts 2-25 times higher than plants, per kilocalorie of food produced.” The implications of this dawning awareness are so enormous, in light of the projected demands of the global food system over the coming decades, that they will be considered in greater detail in the subsection that follows.

12.6.2 The Global Livestock Industry The Diet-Environment-Human Health-Animal Ethics Quadrilemma

Ruminant animals like cattle and goats can convert low-quality forage material into high-quality protein that humans can eat, and raising them can sometimes be a sustainable practice within the bounds of nature alone, especially on lands not capable of supporting much else, as long as the number of humans to be fed in this way is not too great for the overall system. That said, however, today’s intensive cattle production is far from that sort of system, even as the number of humans being fed in this industrial way seems to be increasing all the time. Raising livestock intensively is “becoming an industrial-scale process” around the world; as of 2019, the global production of beef and veal was forecast by the USDA to reach 62.6 million tonnes, led by the US, Brazil and the EU, together accounting for roughly half of it, followed by China and India. The US is reportedly the greatest domestic consumer of beef, consuming almost the same amount as the US production, 12.4 MT, as well as exporting 1.5 MT (USDA 2019). Chicken production for 2019 was forecast to be 98.4 MT globally, led by the US at 19.5 MT. Global pork production for 2019 was projected to be 108.5 MT, with the US in fourth place, producing 12.4 MT. The total global ‘production’ of beef, pork and chicken was thus expected to be around 245 million tonnes in 2019 — it’s apparently never been higher. As Shefali Sharma of the Institute for Food and Agriculture Policy (IATP) explains (2018), a small number of corporations make up the “Global Meat Complex”: “a highly concentrated (horizontally and vertically), integrated web of transnational corporations (TNCs) that control the inputs, production and processing of mass quantities of food animals.” JBS, a Brazil-based company with headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, has become the top meat-producing corporation in the world, followed by Tyson Foods and then Cargill — the latter a prime example of the integration of these multinationals, being not only the third-largest meat processor in the world but also a top grain trader and the second-largest feed manufacturer. These giant corporations generally receive large tax breaks and publicly funded subsidies from the governments that house them; they also happen to be major contributors of GHG emissions, land and water co-optation and pollution with little or no accountability for their environmental impact.

In order to supply the growing demand for meat, intensified production of livestock is on the increase in developing countries, particularly in Asia, with “at least 75% of total production growth to 2030 projected to occur in confined systems,” or confined feeding operations (CAFOs), according to Machovina, Feeley and Ripple (2015); such intensified production depends on internationally traded feed concentrates, with livestock being fed 626 million tonnes of cereal grains (around one-third of the global harvest), 16 million tonnes of oilseed, mainly from soy, and another 268 million tonnes of protein-rich byproducts, mainly bran, oil cakes and fish meal. These CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — are coming under increasing scrutiny; according to the US Government Accountability Office (USGAO, 2008), there were around 12,000 of them in the U.S. in 2002, housing an estimated 8.6 million beef cattle, 3.2 million dairy cows, almost 48 million hogs, 304 million laying hens, 457 million broiler chickens and over 678 million turkeys. The size of these operations continues to increase; in 2012 there were reportedly more than 12 million beef cattle in operations with at least 500 animals, with the average feedlot holding more than 4,300; there were 5.6 million dairy cows in dairies averaging 1500-2000 animals; 63.2 million hogs in operations averaging nearly 6,100 animals; 269 million egg-laying hens in operations averaging 695,000 animals; and over a billion broiler chickens, with operations in some states exceeding 500,000 animals, according to Food & Water Watch (2015). Ethical concerns have been raised about the conditions under which animals are cared for in these operations, with respect to cleanliness, noise, crowding, constraint of movement, and sometimes deliberate cruelty on the part of certain workers, and slaughterhouses in England are slated to be monitored with CCTV cameras to prevent such abuses (Smithers, 2017); in the United States, however, new regulations permitting “high-speed slaughter” of pigs and chickens, rapidly being instituted, are likely to further jeopardize humane treatment in U.S. facilities.[26] Altogether these intensively raised animals in the US generated at least 335 million tonnes of manure in 2012, “about 13 times as much as the sewage produced by the entire U.S. population” (Food and Water Watch, 2015).

Globally, livestock production is reportedly responsible for about 14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions at that time, which in 2014 were 7.1 GtCO2 equivalents out of a total of 49 GtCO2 equivalents emitted (Ripple et al., 2014); of that amount, about 44% of the livestock emissions, or 3.1 GtCO2 equivalents, were in the form of methane (CH4) — said to be 20-30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 — most of which is produced by ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats and water buffalo) in the process of enteric fermentation, the largest single source of anthropogenic methane. Livestock’s other contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are about evenly divided between CO2 emissions from land use change (deforestation and other ecological conversions) and fossil fuel use–about 2.4 GtCO2 — and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions — another 2.2 GtCO2 equivalents — from fertilizer applied to grow feed crops and from manure (Machovina et al.,  2015). Ripple and colleagues (2014) note that the livestock sector of the global economy has “generally been exempt” from climate policies, emphasizing the importance of increasing public awareness of the fact that “what we choose to eat has important consequences for climate change.”[27]

Meanwhile, there has been increasing attention focused on the human health benefits of reducing the amount of meat in our diets. David Tilman and Michael Clark (2014) observe that “ a global dietary transition” — one that hasn’t been good for us — has already been taking place around the world, driven by rising incomes and urbanization: traditional diets are being “replaced by diets higher in refined sugars, refined fats, oils and meats,” contributing to increases in obesity, type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic “non-communicable diseases.”[28] Tilman and Clark (2014) speak of “the tightly-linked diet-environment-health trilemma” — which should be expanded into a quadrilemma of diet-environment-human health-animal ethics, as we recognize what the livestock industry is doing to both domestic animals and, through habitat destruction and its associated hazards, wild animals as well, something that will be considered next. “Animal product consumption by humans (human carnivory) is likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions,” according to Machovina, Feeley and Ripple (2015), and what’s happening in the Amazon “is a primary example of biodiversity loss being driven by livestock production”: “never before has so much old growth and primary forest been converted to human land uses so quickly.” The Deforestation of the Amazon

Originally occupying more than six million square kilometers, Amazonia is “the largest and most diverse of the tropical wilderness areas,” centered on Brazil but extending into eight other countries. It is known to contain include at least 40,000 species of plants, 427 species of mammals, 1294 species of birds, 378 species of reptiles, 427 species of amphibians and around 3,000 species of fishes (da Silva, Rylands, & da Fonseca, 2005); when species as yet undescribed by science are added to the mix, the total number of different species in the Brazilian Amazon alone is thought to be on the order of 1.4-2.4 million (Lewinsohn & Prado, 2005). Denizens of the Amazonian rainforest include jaguars, tapirs, giant otters, pink river dolphins, macaws, toucans, harpy eagles, anacondas, poison dart frogs and electric eels, not to mention rhinoceros beetles, morpho butterflies and giant cockroaches.[29] When roads begin to penetrate the unbroken forest and large areas of the forest are cut down, almost all of the animals are destroyed along with it, and those that survive in the forest fragments left behind are forced to live under radically altered circumstances; forest edges become hotter and drier and more vulnerable to invasive species, and human hunters can enter via new road networks, penetrating the remaining habitat and stripping them of their larger native animals. Moreover, isolated forest fragments act like islands — animals are trapped within them, physically or behaviorally, and are often unable to find appropriate mates to insure gene flow, leading eventually to population die-out. Extinction does not follow immediately upon habitat fragmentation and degradation but generally occurs progressively over time, leading to the notion of an extinction debt, species with a few remaining members but already doomed to disappear (Wean, Reuman & Ewers 2012); it is estimated that the last 30 years of Amazonian deforestation has already committed 10 species of still-existing mammals, 20 species of birds and eight species of amphibians to extinction (Rangel, 2012), numbers expected to rise substantially if deforestation continues or accelerates. And, as we should remember while we watch the Amazonian and other tropical forests go up in flames, the number of individual animals perishing may reach into the billions.[30]

The forests of Amazonia are also critical to one of the Earth’s major hydrological cycles. Making up what she calls “the Flying Rivers of the Amazon,” Sharma (2017) explains that 18 billion tonnes of water are pulled up through the trees of the rainforest every day–more than 7.25 trillion tonnes of water every year–evaporating to form clouds 3,000 meters high that drift to the west, encounter the Andes mountains, and then shift to the south, bringing needed rain to the grass- and shrub-lands of southern Brazil’s Cerrado, as well as Paraguay, Uruguay and northern Argentina — rain that is now diminishing, lowering aquifers and causing water deficits in these regions. This massive movement of water influences global atmospheric circulation and supplies up to 20% of freshwater input into world oceans (Nepstad, 2008). More than 15 billion tonnes of water pour out of the Amazon River into the Atlantic Ocean every day, but the “river of vapor that comes up from the forest and goes into the atmosphere” is even larger than this flow, according to Amazon researcher Antonio Donato Nobre[31]; he likens the evapotranspiration of as many as 600 billion trees to a geyser spouting water into the air, but “with much more elegance” (see Kedney 2015). But the Amazon underwent severe droughts in 2005, 2010, and 2015-16, alternating with periods of severe flooding in 2009, 2012, and 2014, an oscillation that some scientists believe could represent “the first flickers of [an] ecological tipping point,” a tipping point that they believe could be reached at 20-25% deforestation (Lovejoy & Nobre 2018), a point many believe is fast approaching; these authors estimate current deforestation at 17% across the entire Amazon basin and almost 20% in the Brazilian Amazon, and urge a major reforestation project as “the last chance for action” (Lovejoy & Nobre, 2019). Should large parts of this massive forest abruptly ‘tip’ into a different state, the event would likely not only have immense consequences for the hydrology of all of southeastern South America and beyond, it would release a massive amount of carbon from dead and dying trees that could push the planetary system past other climate change thresholds. Not to mention the loss of all that Life!

“What people don’t realize,” according to University of Florida ecologist Emilio Bruna (see Simon, 2019), “is that those trees have over millennia evolved really efficient nutrient extraction mechanisms,” mechanisms that species evolving in other types of ecosystems don’t have. “It’s called the paradox of luxuriance,” he says — people look at the luxuriant growth of the vegetation in the forest and think they will be able to grow anything there, but the nutrients initially released when the trees are cut and burned quickly vaporize or leach away, leaving the land impoverished. “You go from a really lush tropical forest to a completely nonproductive cattle pasture almost immediately,” says Bruna, so agriculturalists frequently abandon worn-out fields and move on deeper into the forest, repeating the process. Increasingly, however, the deforestation is less for pastures than for soybean cultivation — soybeans to be exported and fed to livestock elsewhere on the planet — that represents “a recent and powerful threat to tropical biodiversity in Brazil,” as Philip Fearnside (2001) predicted almost 20 years ago; 87 million tonnes of soybeans were produced by Brazil in 2016, 71% of them going for livestock feed, according to Fuchs et al. (2019), noting that China’s imports of soy from Brazil increased by 2000% between 2000 and 2016.

The Amazon forest is one of the largest stores of carbon in the Earth System, and is estimated to sequester around 150-200 PgC [GtC] in its living biomass and soils, but its ability to store carbon seems to be decreasing (Brinen et al., 2015); the droughts in 2005, 2010 and 2015-2016 and their resulting fires released millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Wet tropical forests like the Amazon aren’t supposed to burn, but rainforests which were once fireproof are now flammable due to drought (see Sax, 2019), and in drought years wildfires alone — even in areas without intentional deforestation — can emit up to a billion tonnes of CO2.[32] Nearly 42,000 fires were reported by the end of August 2019 — the highest since 2010; Brazil suffered a severe drought in 2010, whereas rainfall was only slightly lower than normal in 2019, making “a massive uptick in deforestation” the likely root cause of the fires (see Sax, 2019). Jos Barlow and colleagues (2019) “clarified” the cause of Amazonia’s “burning crisis,” finding “strong evidence” that the increase in fires was linked to deforestation; not only were there nearly 3 times as many active fires in August 2019 than there were in August 2018, refuting the government’s claim that August 2019 was a “normal” month for fires, but more than 10,000 square kilometers were deforested between August 2018 and July 2019, more than four times the average for the same period in 2016-2018.

Unfortunately, Barlow and colleagues had to withhold the names of some fellow researchers at their request (see Pickrell, 2019) because of the “landscape of fear” created by President Bolsonaro, who has slashed science funding and fired prominent scientists publishing such data. But people were already getting the picture; as Bill McKibben (2019) reported, “satellites were showing a new fire erupting somewhere across the landscape every minute” — “not because lightning was striking, but because greed and corruption were striking.” Jair Bolsonaro, who has proudly claimed the title of ‘Captain Chainsaw,’ made it clear that the Amazon is now open to development. Questioned about the remarks of Pope Francis, who said that, in the Amazon there prevails “a blind and destructive mentality that favors profit over justice,” and that “highlights the predatory behavior with which man relates to nature” (Sassine, 2019, in translation), Bolsonaro reportedly answered that “the forest was ‘like a virgin that every pervert from the outside wants,’” and that “therefore Brazilians should cut it down before others had the chance” (McKibben, 2019). Ironically, the InterAcademy Partership (IAP) of over 140 academies of science recently released a Communique (2019) not only declaring that “there can be no solution to climate change without addressing deforestation” but also noting that, if the Amazon is no longer able to provide rain for the country’s crops, Brazil will face an estimated trillion-dollar economic loss over the next 30 years, with pasture productivity reduced by 30% and soybean production reduced by up to 60%.

Bolsonaro has also signaled his disdain for the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, going back many years, as documented by Survival International (2019). In 1998, Bolsonaro was quoted as saying, “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians,” and in 2018 he asserted, “If I become President there will not be a centimeter more of indigenous land”; in Brazil’s Congress he posted “In 2019 we’re going to rip up Raposa Serra do Sol (indigenous territory in northern Brazil) — We’re going to give all the ranchers guns,” and he promised to abolish FUNAI, Brazil’s national Indian Foundation, responsible for mapping and protecting indigenous lands. As Survival International’s Fiona Watson (2018) reported for the Guardian shortly before he took office in January of 2019, under his rule the 100 or so uncontacted tribes of the Amazon will face genocide — “silent invisible genocides,” with few witnesses, as they are “massacred over resources because greedy outsiders know they can literally get away with murder.” Meanwhile, indigenous groups and biodiversity alike are also threatened by big infrastructure projects, many of which are “dragged along” after agricultural expansion. A scheme to build more than 40 dams on the Tapajos River and its tributaries and create an industrial waterway, of which “the soy industry will be one of the main beneficiaries” (see Salisbury, 2016), was halted in 2016, largely because of its threat to the Munduruku people, whose traditional territory would be flooded (Amazon Watch, 2016), but it is likely to be rehabilitated under the Bolsonaro regime. Altamira, the city spawned by the Monte Belo dam complex on the Xingu River, slightly to the east of the Tapajos has spawned, is a good example of the kind of culture that is expected to replace the people who have been living sustainably in the area for hundreds of years (Faiola et al., 2019); it already hosts its own mall with a Burger King franchise, across from which is displayed “a mural of jungle animals and forest — now a popular backdrop for mall-goers to take selfies.” These moves provide all the more reason for bringing pressure to bear on the livestock industry, and particularly its deep roots in Brazil.

12.6.3 The “Bushmeat” Crisis Consuming Our Evolutionary Cohorts

Much of the world’s population lives in urban centers and is fed by industrial agriculture; however, another large and rapidly growing segment lives in large part by hunting for ‘bushmeat’ wherever wild animals can still be found.[33] This consumption of wild animals is “considered among the greatest threats to biodiversity throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America”; “indeed, case studies illuminate a multitude of locations where once vibrant wildlife communities are harvested to a state of defaunation” (Brashares et al., 2011). Going back through earlier reports form a few decades ago, it’s beginning to look like we’re already starting to see something resembling the dawn of the thirtieth day, when the growth of the waterweed, which seemed so slow and innocent at first, finally covers the whole surface of the pond; the human population is already not only huge and still growing but also eating way, way outside of its appropriate trophic niche as a large-bodied primate, and where it is not being sustained by the great industrial machine it is now increasingly turning on its surrounding wildlife populations to consume animals in such numbers — and in some cases with an additional, money-seeking ferocity — that observers are asking the question: when they’re all gone, then what?

Probably the first report in the scientific literature on this emerging problem was Kent Redford’s “The Empty Forest” (1992), which stateded that “until recently, human influence on tropical forests through such activities as burning, swidden agriculture, and hunting was regarded by ecologists as of such low impact that it was negligible, as important but confined to areas of human settlement, or as confined to rapacious colonizers destroying the forest from the outside” (emphasis added). Redford pointed out that forests can be emptied of many or most of their large animals even when the tree cover remains–in other words, that “a forest can be destroyed by humans from within as well as from without.” But the problem was brought to the attention of the general public — some of them, at any rate — in a shocking manner largely through the photographs of Karl Ammann, a wildlife photographer whose horrific illustrations for the books Consuming Nature (Rose et al., 2003) and Eating Apes (Peterson, 2004) bring home just how devastating a toll is being taken on many of the most iconic of the African animals, including all of our great ape cousins, whose habitats lie entirely within some of the most active areas under attack by the bushmeat trade.[34] Ammann also called out big NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund for sitting on the issue, not drawing it to the attention of their donors or doing much about the problem for fear of its potential to rock a lot of cushy boats. Much of the bushmeat is being transported out of the forests on logging trucks, to be sold in urban centers, locally and even internationally. Logging operations open up forests like can-openers, constructing extensive road networks that provide easy access to hunters who may come from far away to engage in the commercial trade in wild meat, and timber companies often encourage the consumption of bushmeat as a cheap and easy way of feeding their workers; moreover, the lucrative returns allows hunters to equip themselves with guns and ammunition, snare wires and motorized transport that increase the efficiency with which wild animals can be ‘harvested.’

By 1999, it was being reported that people in the Brazilian Amazon were consuming somewhere between 67,000 and 164,000 tonnes of wild meat, coming from an estimated 9.6 to 23.5 million wild animals every year, while the amount of meat being taken out of tropical forests in Africa was thought to exceed one million tonnes per year; when calculated in kilograms per square kilometer, this would amount to as much as 20-50 times more than the “largely subsistence” take out of the Amazon (Robinson et al., 1999). Four years later, in “Wild Meat: The Bigger Picture,” it was acknowledged that “massive overhunting of wildlife for meat across the humid tropics is now causing local extinctions of numerous species” (Milner-Gulland & Bennett, 2003). “Protein extraction” rates were being calculated in terms of  “production” of tonnes per year, with an estimated quantity of over five million tonnes of wild mammalian meat being removed from the forests and consumed by the human populations of Latin America and Africa, the amounts for the Congo basin being four times higher than had been estimated earlier (Fa et al., 2002).[35] Many large-bodied, slow-reproducing species are especially vulnerable, including some of the most cognitively complex; the great apes (whose wild populations are entirely confined to the tropical forests of Africa) and elephants, for example, are presumably included in this estimate of protein extraction.

Moreover, when the ratio of exploitation, in kilograms of meat taken per square kilometer of forest per year, to “production” — presumably animals being born and growing to huntable size, reduced to kilograms of living animal biomass per square kilometer per year–was calculated and projected forward (Fa et al., 2003), the results were unsettling; almost five times more meat would be removed than ‘produced’ in the forest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by 2050; when divided by the expected population at that time, this would lead to an estimated drop in the “bushmeat protein supply” of 78%. The authors acknowledge that “the picture is indeed a bleak scenario, not only for wildlife but also for the region’s inhabitants”; the “trends of protein supply” are “highly pessimistic,” they conclude, “simply because of the uncontrolled increase in human numbers,” and they raise the hope that this might be compensated by “alternative protein sources,” animal or vegetable, locally produced or imported. They speak nary a word, however, about doing something to lower the denominator of that latter consumption ratio.

If the relationship between bushmeat consumption and population growth is a dismal one, the linkage between its consumption and income level is also a disturbing one; it seems that, in rural areas, the least wealthy families consume the most bushmeat, but in urban centers, the wealthier households have higher rates of consumption — “thus, the ‘poor’ person’s meat in the country becomes the ‘rich’ person’s meat in the city,” according to Brashares and colleagues (2011). Much of it is consumed in the big cities of the tropical countries where it originates, but there is also a lucrative international trade; for example, at just one European airport, the Paris Roissy-Charles de Gaulle in France, an estimated five tonnes of bushmeat was being smuggled in every week through the personal baggage of arriving passengers, suggesting “the emergence of a luxury market for African bushmeat in Europe” (Chaber et al., 2010).

In “the first comprehensive global assessment” of hunting on terrestrial mammals, William Ripple and colleagues (2016) conclude “results show evidence of a global crisis.” They identify 301 mammal species threatened with extinction for which human hunting is a primary threat, including 126 species of primates, 65 species of even-toed hoofed mammals, 27 species of bats, 26 marsupials, 21 species of rodents, 12 species of carnivores and all pangolin species; the likelihood of threat is generally proportional to body size, with almost two-thirds of the largest terrestrial mammals (over 1000 kg) being at risk of extinction as a result of human hunting. Bushmeat hunting is occurring almost entirely in the developing countries of Africa, South America and Southeast Asia; of the 301 threatened mammals, 113 are found in Southeast Asia, 91 in Africa, 61 in the rest of Asia, 38 in Latin America, and 32 in Oceania. Almost a quarter (23%) of all populations of these heavily hunted mammal species deteriorated between 1996 and 2008, the highest percentages being among the primates and even-toed ungulates; the majority of them currently have less than 5% of their ranges in protected areas. Threatened species inhabit a number of different trophic levels, from apex predator to mesopredator to herbivores of all sizes, and play ecological roles from seed dispersers to pollinators to prey species. Since human hunting disproportionately affects the larger-bodied animals, which generally are slower to reproduce, dramatic reductions in their populations produce cascading effects throughout their ecosystems, primarily by loss of the ‘top-down’ control they normally exert, sometimes “releasing” smaller species and possibly increasing risk of transmission of disease to humans. The primary method of obtaining bushmeat is often through the use of traps and snares, which is highly wasteful and results in a great deal of suffering, since up to a third of animals escape with injuries and the many that die may take hours or days to do so. When under severe hunting pressure, moreover, mammals can develop complex ways of avoiding human presence, but living in such “landscapes of fear” can rob them of energy and reduce their time spent foraging or capturing prey (Ripple et al., 2016).

Zoonotic diseases that are thought to have emerged from butchering of wildlife for human consumption include Ebola, HIV-1 and -2, the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, and most recently SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus currently spreading in a global pandemic. As Morens, Daszak, and Taubenberger (2020) acknowledge, “we must realize that in our crowded world of 7.8 billion people, a combination of altered human behaviors, environmental changes, and inadequate global public health mechanisms now easily turn obscure animal viruses into existential human threats”; as they observe, “we have created a global, human-dominated ecosystem that serves as a playground for the emergence and host-switching of animal viruses.” William Karesh and colleagues (2012) explain “nearly two-thirds of human infectious diseases arise from pathogens shared with wild or domestic animals,” and note that “changes in land use, extractive industry actions, and animal production systems” have been involved in zoonotic transmission. The viruses responsible for both the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic and the 2012 MERS outbreak are thought to have originated as bat viruses, the MERS virus passing through dromedary camels as an intermediate host and the SARS virus through palm civets sold in a Chinese “wet market” (Cui et al., 2019). COVID-19 is also believed to have jumped the species barrier in a ‘wet market’ where exotic wild animal bushmeat of various kinds can be found (see Perlman 2020); its animal host of origin is also thought to be a species of bat (Zhou, 2020), although pangolins — illegally but widely consumed in China — are also under consideration (see Cyranoski, 2020; Yu, 2020). There have been calls for the abolition of these so-called ‘wet markets’ by critics including the Wall Street Journal (see Walzer & Kang, 2020), while Sonia Shah (2020) focuses attention on the rampant habitat destruction that is forcing wild species into greater contact with humans, and David Quammen (2020) addresses the “perilous trade in wildlife for food, with supply chains stretching through Asia, Africa and to a lesser extent, the United States and elsewhere,” in conjunction with “bureaucrats who lie and conceal bad news, and elected officials who brag to the crowd about cutting forests to create jobs in the timber industry and agriculture or about cutting budgets for public health and research.”

Ripple and colleagues (2016) state that “we must find ways to curb our insatiable consumption,” pointing out that “it is critical to acknowledge that the terms ‘protein’ and ‘meat’ are not synonymous”; they recognize that “ultimately, reducing global consumption of meat is a key step,” both in regard to the bushmeat situation and with respect to the environmental problems created by the livestock industry globally, suggesting a shift in dietary preferences toward high-protein plant foods and even invertebrates and other novel sources of protein. They also do not shy away from advocating programmes to help lower birth rates, referencing a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute that calculated the provision of adequate contraception to all women in developing countries worldwide would cost only around eight billion dollars annually (Singh & Darroch, 2012)–a cost that could be easily shouldered by developed countries with ‘defense’ budgets in the trillions. These scientists repeated their warning three years later (Ripple et al., 2019), drawing attention to our species’ outlier status as what Darimont at al. (2015) called “an unsustainable ‘superpredator’”: we kill adult prey preferentially over juveniles, taking adults up to 14 times as often, something no other animal species does in nature, an unusual form of predation that can be thought of as drawing down the ‘reproductive capital’ of a population — those who make it to adulthood — rather than “living off the interest” of the juveniles produced every year, as other predators do (see Worm, 2015). The urgency of the situation, including the risk of creating future zoonotic pandemics, is spurring increasingly emphatic calls to make dealing with the escalating bushmeat crisis a conservation priority.[36] Profiting from Body Parts

The trade in animal parts is an escalating problem over and above the hunting of bushmeat for subsistence consumption, however, and needs to be examined as a social phenomenon. When certain ‘parts’ become the object of sudden popularity,[37] or perhaps become marketed as a newly discovered cure-all unknown to Western medicine, or simply become known as a ‘good investment,’ this added symbolic status can in itself drive a species into extinction, something known as the “anthropogenic Allee effect” (Courchamp et al., 2006). The Allee effect is a well-known phenomenon within ecology, wherein once the population density of a species falls below a certain level, the less able the animals are to reproduce themselves and recruit new members into their population — a matter of “negative growth rates at low densities,” resulting from various biological factors. The anthropogenic Allee effect is a “human-generated feedback loop” that intensifies the process. Standard economic theory insists that the marketplace won’t drive species into extinction because, since the ‘resource’ becomes increasingly scarce as it becomes rarer, the cost of catching it will increase until exploitation stops, after which time its population will recover. Even as the last assumption is coming into question, the major claim of this theory has been shown to be incorrect by examples of species whose ‘value’ (read ‘price’ of some animal or part thereof) increases with its increasing rarity, which “stimulates further harvesting and drives the species into an extinction vortex” (Courchamp et al., 2006).

In certain places, the killing of animals for their meat and/or parts is being carried out by organized groups with sophisticated weapons, and is being met with similar tactics and firepower on the ‘anti-poaching’ side, and this is probably nowhere better illustrated than in and around Kruger National Park in South Africa, where the lucrative trade in rhino horn seems to be driving an anthropogenic Allee plunge in the two remaining African rhino species, even in their supposedly well-protected last stronghold. Annette Hubschle provides some important insight into the many human dimensions of the forces underlying the bushmeat crisis in Africa and likely in many other parts of the world. A Game of Horns: Transnational Flows of Rhino Horn (2016), which served as her dissertation in economic sociology. She focuses on Kruger National Park, where somewhere between 8,000 and 9,500 white rhinos and 350 to 500 black rhinos were thought to survive in the roughly 20,000 square kilometers of the park, and where, according to park anti-poaching officials, it’s so bad that “an available pool of 2,500 to 3,000 poachers” can always be found in and around the park, with “an average of ten to fifteen hunting crews tracking rhinos at any given time” (Hubschle, 2016, p. 325).

Hubschle traces the history of ‘conservation’ in South Africa, beginning with the arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652, imposing colonial rule; native Africans lost property and hunting rights, while colonists began seriously depleting populations by the late 1800s, necessitating conservation measures. As she explains, “while one might think that these conservation regulations sought to protect wildlife, in reality they can only be understood in the context of colonial exploitation of African people” (2016, p. 175). Kruger was set up as a game reserve before being declared South Africa’s premier National Park in 1926, but this came at the cost of several waves of forced removal of African people from the land, which continued until as recently as 1969. A wildlife ranching industry began to develop over the 1960s and 70s, with private ownership of wildlife and rhinos in particular accruing to the while elite, creating a legal market in wild animals and their products from which Africans continued to be excluded. This legal market in live rhinos, rhino horn and rhino trophies “provided the foundations for certain criminal activities to flourish and for gray channels to develop into fully-fledged illegal supply chains” (Hubschle, 2016, p. 181), and many of these activities continued after CITES banned the international trade of rhino products in 1977.

Conservation came to mean moving rhinos to the private holdings of white ranchers, ostensibly to rebuild wild populations, but more importantly opening the door to the commercial trophy-hunting industry; meanwhile, subsistence hunting by local communities of black Africans was branded poaching and criminalized. The breeding, sale to ranchers and commercialization of rhinos for their horns and trophies intensified over the 1990s and into the early 2000s, allowing this elite group to become accustomed to enjoying a most profitable business; however, she explains, the escalation of illegal killing of rhinos on public lands is now cutting into the supply of animals available for sale to the private sector, providing an incentive for the escalation of a paramilitary ‘war against poaching’ that she claims has little to do with respect for the animal itself.

Hubschle conducted interviews with 239 SubSaharan Africans who agreed to participate in her study, many from Mozambican communities located just outside the KNP. As they explained to her, their villages had been undergoing increasing economic marginalization for years after the illegalization of their own hunting, and as rhino poaching became increasingly lucrative, it only made economic sense to take the risks. Men from many different backgrounds make up the hunting crews, freely cooperating in rhino killing–and a grisly business it is, too, since, while rhino horns can be removed by careful excision without killing the animal because the hairlike horn material does not have a bony attachment to the skull, “illegal hunters use either ax, pocket knives or machetes to remove the horn” (2016, p. 307), and the wounded animal is left to die. Village ‘kingpins’ coordinate the huntying groups and emerge as self-styled Robin Hoods, constructing their identities as “economic freedom fighters” within a shared perspective that “the poacher is claiming back his right to hunt by poaching in modern conservation areas, which were the traditional hunting grounds of his forefathers” (2016, pp. 311–312).

She also interviews many of the “consumers” of rhino horn and those involved in the quasi-legal or illegal trade channels, and notes what she calls the “sacralization” of the rhino horn — but unfortunately not of the living rhino itself — in Asian communities; her conclusion was that “the sanctity of ancient beliefs and socially accepted norms not only supersedes rhino conservation initiatives but also international trade bans and domestic rules” (2016, p. 169). Contemporary consumers of rhino horn generally indicated they desired it for reasons of health (although most medical communities deny it has any efficacy) or for the status that its possession imbued; interviews with actors in the criminal networks meeting this ‘demand,’ however, indicated they looked forward to the extinction of the species because of its likely effect of escalating the ‘investment potential’ of caches of the horn.

The basic argument of her dissertation (2016, p. 67) is that successive programmes instituted for the protection of the rhino have “led to a historical lock-in that has allowed the illegal market in rhino horn to flourish”; key actors in this flow of horn do not accept the ban on trade in rhino horn and/or the legitimacy of the differentiation between legal and illegal rhino killing, and they use this “contested illegality” to justify both “gray” economic activities and those that are clearly illegal. A key finding of her research was the importance of actors situated “at the interface between legality and illegality” in maintaining the resilience of the criminal networks; somewhat shockingly, Hubschle observes that, “while conventional narratives point to the involvement of organized crime in transnational rhino horn flows, this label is only correct if wildlife professionals and state officials are subsumed under it, and the dominant role of local actors is acknowledged” (2016, p. 368). In her view, rhinos will “have a fighting chance” only when they can be seen as enhancing the well-being of the local communities close to the parks where they live, so the conservation community should seek positive change for them, and make sure that the voices of marginalized people are heard in planning the future.

The situation of rhinos in South Africa, while perhaps at the extreme end of the spectrum of violence as well as monetary reward, most probably applies in general terms to many other areas around the world where wildlife populations are beset by human hunters who live in villages and towns next to nature reserves and who have likewise been “economically marginalized,” often in small or large part by conservation efforts. Elephants are being slaughtered at astonishing rates virtually everywhere in Africa, the holocaust driven by the ‘demand’ for ivory; perhaps even more grotesquely than the rhinos, the elephants’ faces are chopped off with axes, poachers making off with the tusks and leaving the animals to die. Since older individuals — the ones with big tusks — are especially hard hit, altered sex and age ratios result, leading to in dramatic changes in the social structure of the population and leaving many ‘orphans,’ unaffiliated juveniles, to fend for themselves (Wittemyer et al., 2013). While elephant populations had been holding their own in the relatively well-protected parks of Southern Africa until recently, on a continent-wide basis at least three quarters of African elephant populations are declining; elephants in the “lawless forests of Central Africa” are “’on the front end of the spear’’’ and being slaughtered mercilessly (see Stokstad, 2014; Wittemyer et al., 2014), with forest elephants apparently extirpated from the eastern DRC between 1996 and 2005 (Wasser et al., 2015; Stokstad, 2015). Poachers are now turning to the last stronghold of savannah elephants, the Southern African nation of Botswana, home to about a third of Africa’s remaining wild savannah elephants, which had until recently maintained a stable elephant population of over 130,000 with relatively little poaching (see Nuwer 2019); Schlossberg, Chase and Sutcliffe (2019) estimated that a minimum of 385 (plus or minus 54) elephants were slaughtered in poaching hotspots in Botswana over the one-year period prior to their survey. According to Michael Chase, one of the co-authors of the study, the poaching must have started around the same time that Botswana’s rangers, who previously had maintained a zero-tolerance, ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy toward poaching, were disarmed (see France-Presse, 2018). President Mokgweetsi Masisi, coming to power in May of 2019, reversed a previous ban on hunting elephants, reinstituting the lucrative practice of trophy hunting.[38]

A recent discussion taking place around the issue of trophy hunting both illuminates how high the stakes are re the wildlife trade and offers a glimmer of hope that a new attitude is arising toward our evolutionary cohorts — at least within certain communities. Reporting on lion conservation, a situation representative of many large carnivores and other African megafauna, David Macdonald (2016) explains that lions have already been extirpated from 92% of their former range, and warns that, while trophy hunting may further diminish lion populations in some areas, if it becomes widely banned, loss of the revenue generated thereby is likely to result in conversion of most remaining lion habitat to more financially rewarding uses, primarily agriculture and livestock grazing. Voicing their opposition, Chelsea Batavia and colleagues (2018) identify the trophies themselves as “emblems of conquest,” while noting that the individual animals — “commoditized, killed and dismembered” — are “relegated to the sphere of mere things when they are turned into souvenirs, oddities and collectibles”; they further claim that the practice is situated within “a Western cultural narrative of chauvinism, colonialism, and anthropocentrism” where trophy hunters symbolically reenact the subjugation and colonizing of indigenous peoples, and they condemn it as “morally indefensible.” Since Africa is facing predictions of a doubling of its human population by 2050 and a tripling by the end of this century, combined with what is already an antagonistic attitude toward lions and other carnivores due to increasing conflicts with local people, and since nonconsumptive tourism is unlikely to yield sufficient revenue to offset these pressures, Macdonald et al. (2017) maintain that “new financial models to encourage coexistence with nature must be found.” However, Macdonald knew Cecil the Lion as a researcher, and in reporting on the dramatic spike in world media attention that occurred shortly after Cecil’s killing by an American bowhunter, he and his colleagues express hope that this focused interest reflects “a personal, and thus potentially political, value, not just for Cecil, and not just for lions, but for wildlife, conservation, and the environment” in general (Macdonald et al., 2016). Echoing this optimism, Michael Manfredo and colleagues (2020) propose that cultural modernization — at least in certain countries — is resulting in a value shift “from domination, in which wildlife are for human uses, to mutualism, in which wildlife are seen as part of one’s social community”; they believe a key factor in this shift is anthropomorphism (“interpretive” anthropomorphism is an appropriate attribution of intentions, beliefs and emotions to nonhuman beings based on their behavior and/or general neurological homologies; see Urquiza-Haas and Kotrschal, 2015) – they see this value shift as challenging the domination-based approach of traditional wildlife management to transition into one of compassionate conservation.

The coronavirus pandemic should intensify our scrutiny of the international wildlife trade, and indeed of all the other ways we humans are exploiting nonhuman animals — from the habitat destruction that pushes remaining wild populations into closer contact with people to the CAFOS that cram great numbers of domestic animals together in highly stressful and often unsanitary conditions to the wild animal farms that imprison nondomesticated species for profit — as unwise and unnecessary practices that are increasing the risk of future human pandemics. Policy discussions routinely address expanding disease surveillance and “managing the wildlife trade” (Watsa et al., 2020), but these authors also note that, in addition to pathogen screening, “how humans interact with wildlife” will be at the crux of our ability to deal with emerging infectious diseases. It seems the choice is ours: If we move farther into the 21st century without reversing the major trend lines of our collective trajectory — increasing human population, increasing meat consumption, increasing habitat destruction — it appears that, not only will we be further imperiling our own future, but virtually all African wildlife, as well as many other wild species around the world, if they survive at all, will become at best financial hostages, caught between the Scylla of human desperation and the Charybdis of the global money game, while the Biosphere goes down all around us. On the other hand, if we can come to see the approach of domination and use-orientation as the cognitive framework that underlies all forms of oppression and exploitation of “the other,” human and nonhuman alike (see, e.g. Hawkins, 1998), and choose to take the alternative approach to otherness that we know exists within our cognitive repertoire (a resonance can be recognized between Manfredo’s “mutualism” and the African philosophy of ubuntu, if understood as “a basically humanistic orientation towards fellow beings”; see Mokgoro, 1998), we might still have a chance at remediation. In order for this to happen, however, those groupings of humanity with the means to do so will need to radically revise their way of conceptualizing economics in order to alleviate poverty and undo existing inequalities, at the same time that we all begin shifting our diets back toward something more befitting a large-bodied primate and realizing that we all have the capacity to exercise a great deal of moral choice over how much larger our global population becomes and how much of the Earth we will leave wild for sharing with other beings.

12.7 Money Games: Chasing the Symbol

How does our pursuit of money or ‘economic growth,’ and its relationship to the consumption of real things, necessary or not for our human wellbeing, relate to our impact on nature? There are many dimensions to this issue, and multiple ways of conceptualizing the relationship. Sanderson, Walston and Robinson (2018) look to “the market economy” as a savior, of sorts, for biodiversity. As growing human populations, no longer able to support themselves in rural environments, move into cities in a massive process of urbanization, they will — at least, if they’re lucky enough to find a job — become incorporated into the economic system, no longer living off the land but finding one or another way of  ‘making money’; and along with this transition, these authors assure us, will come the incentive to seek more education, as a way of moving up the employment ladder, and fewer children, as they discover the ‘costs’ of feeding and caring for them, thus in the long run facilitating a leveling off and eventual stabilization of the human population. They dispute the widespread belief that increased consumption necessarily follows increased income — accumulating savings and more time for leisure activities may prove to be preferred alternatives, they muse — and at least, even though the centralized services of cities in the aggregate use a tremendous amount of ‘resources’ and generate a tremendous amount of waste, on a per capita basis these indices are said to be reduced, while opportunities for cultural activities, technological advances and social movements — including, perhaps, a move to conserve nature — will be enhanced. These authors admit that some regions are currently still caught in a ‘bottleneck,’ where human populations are still growing and rates of “natural-resource extraction” and pollution are still increasing, SubSaharan Africa being a case in point — but that, if we can just get them through the next 30-50 years, which will be a time of “extreme difficulty” for conservation, with more losses expected, then they will finally experience ‘breakthrough,’ with populations stabilizing and indices of concern beginning to decline. Toward this end, they assert that “improving the governance and functioning of African urban areas while simultaneously protecting Africa’s unique wildlife is arguably the most urgent need in conservation today, because it is the fastest path to global population stabilization.”

For the sake of Africa’s wildlife, let us hope they are right; if African people who are currently “making money” in the bushmeat trade, let alone the skyrocketing industry in certain kinds of animal “parts,” can find alternative gainful employment in the city centers, well and good, and perhaps their craving for meat can be satisfied by the excess production of livestock industries in the developed countries, until meat consumption can be brought down on a global scale and vegetable protein and other alternatives consumed in its place. Looking at statistics from a highly developed, already largely urbanized country, the United States, however, wildlife biologist Brian Czech and his colleagues have come to a conclusion opposite to that above. They examined accounts of species endangerment and found the urbanization associated with economic growth generally driving the process, concluding that economic growth “amounts to the competitive exclusion of nonhumans in general” (Czech et al., 2000). Czech suggests that the notion of “economic growth” is an “American ideal” that provides psychological comfort as well as the promise of material comfort, but he declares it to be the “limiting factor” in wildlife conservation, at least in the U.S., and takes his fellow wildlife professionals to task for being “virtually silent” on the topic, “suggesting that the profession has been laboring in futility” (Czech, 2000).

Environmental philosopher Philip Cafaro (2011) also dares to address the negative effects on nature that result from both economic growth and population growth. Like Czech, he observes that, in the United States, economic growth “is the primary goal of our society.” As a corrective, Cafaro offers the views of philosophers from the past about “the proper place of economic activity” in human life. Aristotle maintained that living well entails recognizing limits, observing that some, failing to grasp this truth, mistakenly desire to “increase without limit their property in money” and in “what is productive of unlimited things.” Epicurus spurned “the pleasures of consumption,” and Seneca criticized “luxury” as leading to “the vices”; Thoreau chided those whose life devolved into a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses competition, always thinking they must have a house “such as their neighbors have,” while Aldo Leopold urged “a little healthy contempt” for a world “so greedy for more bathtubs.” Cafaro also draws attention to the phenomenon of advertising, reporting that, in the United States, $163 billion were spent in 2006 “to keep Americans consuming at high levels” (Cafaro, 2011).

Aristotle also put his finger on a certain distortion in our thinking that may lie at the heart of some of our most serious problems today: it has to do with our economic notion of “interest.”[39] In a passage condemning usury (Politics, 1258b), he charges that the practice is “most unnatural”; it seems that the term for “interest” in Greek, meaning “breed” or “offspring,” incorporates the idea that the offspring resembles the parent, and employing it in an economic context gives the mistaken impression that money can be bred with itself to generate offspring resembling its parents in the same way that living beings like cattle or fruit trees can — but alas, it cannot, since it is not a living thing at all. Aristotle’s example may have concerned the fact that metal coins can’t “breed” in such a fashion, but he is drawing our attention to the basic difference between the abstract and the concrete; as we learned from our reading of Searle, money is an abstract, socially constructed entity — on the one hand, it is mathematically capable of being “increased” without limit, theoretically to infinity, but on the other, it is nothing at all in the real, ontologically objective world, just a symbolic placeholder that cannot fill an empty belly. Unfortunately, however, when we think of a country’s “GDP,” we tend to fall prey to the illusion that, because growth in this numerical sum is theoretically infinite, then the real economy — our consumption of real goods in the real world — can go on without limit too.

Alfred North Whitehead termed this confused form of thinking “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead, 1929), a mistake that Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen identified as “the cardinal sin of economics.” Georgescu-Roegen was the first major contemporary economist to emphasize the importance of grounding economics in physical reality and the finitude of what we call natural resources, and his work was foundational to the subdiscipline of ecological economics. His student, Herman Daly, went on to advocate the steady-state economy, of which both Cafaro and Czech speak approvingly.[40] Daly elaborates on this problem of “misplaced concreteness,” finding examples of this in modern economics:

Perhaps the classic instance of this fallacy in economics is “money fetishism.” It consists in taking the characteristics of the abstract symbol and measure of exchange value, money, and applying them to the concrete use value, the commodity itself. Thus, if money flows in an isolated circle then so do commodities; if money balances can grow forever at compound interest, then so can real GNP, and so can pigs and cars and haircuts. (Daly 1987)

This “isolated circle” is described at greater length by Kate Raworth, of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, Doughnut Economics (2017):

The central image in mainstream economics is the circular flow diagram. It depicts a closed flow of income cycling between households, businesses, banks, government and trade, operating in a social and ecological vacuum. Energy, materials, the natural world, human society, power, the wealth we hold in common . . . all are missing from the model. . . . . Like rational economic man, this representation of economic activity bears little relationship to reality. (Monbiot, 2017)

In her alternative “doughnut model,”[41] Raworth redraws the economy, embedding it within two larger circles: the outside of the doughnut represents the “ecological ceiling,” the nine “planetary boundaries” we must not cross, and the hole in the doughnut, the space beneath the “floor” of our social foundation, is where people live lives of deprivation; in between, people have enough of the things needed to live a good life–healthful food, clean water, sanitary living conditions, education, and so on. Figuring out how to bring our global population up into the body of this doughnut will be a neat trick, if we can do it; unfortunately, that has not been the goal of modern economics as we know it.

It should be noted, at this point, that economics is NOT a science. Science “bottoms out,” as Searle would say, in the ontologically objective: things that really exist in the world, independently of our representations of them, whether they are molecules or mountains, gigatonnes of carbon in the air or in the ground, individual living organisms or the living webs of relationships that knit them together. Since they have an existence that is independent of us humans, they “push back” when we measure, probe and manipulate them — that’s why groups of scientists can confirm or reject the research conclusions of other scientists — even though different scientists may be situated somewhat differently in the world and so come at their work from somewhat different contexts, there’s a “real thing” out there that they’re trying to describe and on which it is hoped all findings will eventually converge. Economics, on the other hand, at least the ‘mainstream’ neoclassical economics that’s taken over the world today, just bottoms out in ontologically subjective entities like “price” and “discount rate”; even its fundamental element, the “dollar,” is a socially constructed entity through and through.

Understanding that important difference is probably the reason why Alfred Nobel never set up a “Nobel Prize in Economics” as he did Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, Physics, and Medicine, as well as Literature and Peace. Instead, there is the “Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel,” a prize funded by the central bank of Sweden. Peter Nobel, “the great, great nephew of Alfred Nobel,” claims his distinguished ancestor “would never have created” such a prize, which he considers to be merely “a PR coup by economists to improve their reputation” (The Local, 2005). Friedrich von Hayek, moreover, who was awarded this Nobel Memorial Prize in 1974, said in his acceptance speech that he would have advised against creating it, because “the Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.” “This does not matter in the natural sciences,” he explained, because in the case of scientists such influence is chiefly felt by fellow scientists, who “will soon cut him down to size if he exceeds his competence,” whereas an economist will have influence over politicians, journalists and the general public, before whom he may be tempted to make pronouncements that do exceed his competence (von Hayek 1974). The reason why fellow scientists can “cut down to size” one of their number who “exceeds his competence,” of course, is that there is an independent reality that they all ultimately have to be faithful to, whereas all an economist has is a conceptual framework, unbounded and ungrounded, about which he can expound at length to scientist and citizen alike.

The problem of what happens when these two “worlds collide” — when the real world of living beings comes up against the abstract world of our economic constructs, and in particular its “interest rates” — is brought home graphically in a paper by two researchers trying to develop a plan for sustainable forestry in the Bolivian Amazon in collaboration with a specialist in natural resource economics (Rice et al., 1997). They discovered that timber companies had no financial incentive at all to invest in sustainable forestry, which would entail restraint in cutting trees, allowing smaller trees to grow in volume over time and replanting seedlings after harvests; “unrestricted logging” was found to be two to five times more profitable. It seems the “most rational approach” from a financial perspective was to “liquidate” all the monetarily valuable trees immediately and then invest the proceeds, especially given the notably high rates of return being given in most Latin American countries at the time. The stark economic “facts” of the matter are illustrated in a graph plotting monetary growth in US dollars over time as a function of varying “rates of return.” Sustainable forestry yields a mere 5% growth by letting a hypothetical $1,000 worth of trees grow in size and value to turn into $2,000 worth in 15 years, and is illustrated by a sedately rising linear trajectory; cutting them all down immediately and investing the money at interest rates ranging from 14% to 24%, on the other hand, is illustrated by a series of J-curves turning ever more sharply upward, with money tripling, quadrupling, and even increasing by a factor of 8 within just 10 years. A second illustration displays colorful photos of rainforest plants and animals, with the heading “Vive la Difference.” It should be noted that, within the larger conceptual framework, the “difference” being illuminated by these contrasting images is ontological.

These authors reference an earlier paper that also addresses this collision between the economic and the biological worlds, one that gets into an even more disturbing outcome: economic rationality can drive species extinction. Colin Clark (1974) considers threats to the blue whale and other species, introducing the insidious notion of “discounting.” A species can be driven into extinction by economics by “the maximization of present value, whenever a sufficiently high rate of discount is used.” The discount rate exploiters adopt, he explains, “will be related to the marginal opportunity cost of capital in other investments” — it’s the same problem faced by Rice, Gullison and Reid, but in econospeak. Clark calculates that, for the Antarctic blue whale, if exploiters seek “maximization of the present value of harvests,” an annual discount rate of between 10% and 20% would be sufficient to drive the species into extinction, a discount rate “by no means exceptional in resource development industries.”

What is this so-called discount rate? It’s given two different meanings within the economics literature. The one most people are familiar with is that it’s the rate that the US Federal Reserve charges when lending money to other banks; typically a rate for overnight lending, this discount rate is set by the Fed “internally,” and not released to the public in a general publication (see Investopedia, 2019), though other interest rates will generally reflect this base rate. The second meaning is a little more difficult to grasp; it has to do with the “time value of money.” As put by Rose Cunningham (2009), the mathematics are a matter of running the “’miracle of compound interest’ in reverse.” Again, it points back to the real-world situations described by Rice, Gullison and Reid and by Clark; a hypothetical investor is confronted with a choice between receiving a certain amount of cash immediately or waiting a certain amount of time to receive the same amount of cash at a predetermined point in the future, as presumably would be the case if a certain off-take of some “natural resource” was to be harvested “sustainably” and turned into cash. Since, if the person receives the lump sum now, it can be invested immediately in some financial scheme that will make it grow according to a certain “interest” rate, it can always be expected to be a greater sum at the end of the waiting period — thus it will always seem “better to have money now rather than later.” Therefore, money is considered to be “more valuable in the present,” and because of this perception the deferred amount is “devalued” mathematically–essentially by running the interest calculation in reverse. Heyford (2019) gives an example of comparing these alternatives, starting with $10,000 received now or received after 3 years; if the 10,000 is invested now for 4.5% interest, then–due to the exponential nature of compounding[42] — by the end of the 3-year period it will have increased to $11,412, its “future value.” However, if we want to find out how much we would have to invest today in order to receive $10,000 in 3 years, we have to “rearrange the future value equation” to accommodate what becomes a negative exponent[43] in order to find the “present value” of that deferred sum — which would be $8763 in this case. In other words, what we are doing is “discounting the future value of an investment” (Heyford, 2019).

This may, unfortunately, make “rational sense” to investors concerned only about maximizing their financial returns, but — even more unfortunately — the same sort of abstract, mathematicized reasoning is being applied to “discounting” the value of just about everything else as well. As Cunningham (2009) explains in simple terms, even human lives can be considered in this way; if one current human life is assigned a monetary “value” of $5 million, for example (she defers any discussion of the ethics of this to another post), at a “sensible seeming” discount rate of 5% per year (well, annual interest rates of 4 to 5% would seem “sensible” to us, so consider the way the interest calculation can be “run in reverse” to devalue things in the future) that human life 200 years in the future would only be worth $304 in today’s dollars, and in 300 years only about $2.30. If this surprises you, her answer to how we arrive at “such a dramatic mark-down” is that it is “simply the exponential nature of discount and interest rates.” (It seems population growth is not the only area in which we humans encounter difficulties because of a poor understanding of the nature of exponential growth.) These rates “embed assumptions about how much value we place on future human lives”; we apparently only value them equally with our own “if the discount rate is zero.” Now, perhaps that’s the answer to the thorny issue of intergenerational equity — if the “time value of money,” from whence this notion of “discounting the future” has sprung, is considered “a basic principle of finance,” then perhaps the present configuration of our economic system should be rethought. But to understand what is happing now at policy-making levels, it is important to grasp how this kind of thinking goes.

Policy decisions, Cunningham tells us, are made on the basis of what is termed a “social discount rate,” not directly linked to market interest rates, that presumably expresses “that rate at which society, not just the market, trades off the future and the present”; it is, essentially, “just a measure of how impatient we are,”[44] reflecting “our preference for receiving benefits or consuming today rather than tomorrow.” Apparently what is under consideration in most policy decisions is whether or not, or how much, money to “invest” in policies and projects aimed at mitigating some of the effects of climate change (apparently overlooking altogether the fact that the essential thing that should be done is a matter of not-doing, of cutting back on many kinds of projects), with a keen eye on the “efficiency” with which overall monetary returns can be maximized. Cunningham herself appears torn on the issue of how to make these value judgments; she observes “I think that the overall society does care about the future, and future generations’ wellbeing, but we don’t act as if we value the future as much as we value the present,” and she seems to prefer the use of “declining” discount rates that discount fairly steeply for the near future and very little or nothing at all (after the initial near-term devaluations) beyond several hundred years from now.

A number of criticisms of this overall approach have been launched, which unfortunately cannot be discussed at length here.[45] The general pattern of “discounting the future” still appears to dominate economic approaches to climate change, however, and a paper by Erling Moxnes (2014) illustrates how such thinking is shorn up. Moxnes argues for approaching policy decisions using an “alternative welfare function” instead of the standard one to better “capture the preference structure” revealed by two questionnaires he developed, questionnaires which he claims demonstrate that “people are able to choose among policies by inspecting time graphs of policy consequences.” But, while respondents are told “you will see the exact consequences of the policies on national consumption development per person,” they see no pictures of raging wildfires or flooding landscapes; they are given no depictions of the real world at all, in fact, but rather line graphs depicting units of “per capita consumption” and “per capita well-being.” And here’s the hook: they are asked to consider how much of their own consumption they would give up for children and grandchildren “that will enjoy higher consumption than you”; in the first questionnaire, consumption grows steadily in both scenarios presented, consumption in 2110 being given as “4 times higher than in 2010,” while, in the second questionnaire, respondents are told “well-being doubles after 100 years” (Moxnes, 2014, emphasis added).

These sorts of assumptions are by no means unusual in the economic literature, and belief in limitless economic growth and steadily increasing human wellbeing appear to be the lynchpin on the case for substantial discounting in discussions of climate mitigation policy; “economists commonly assume that economic growth will leave future generations richer than the present one, in spite of climate change,” according to Matthew Rendall (2019). Rendall explains that this form of argument–“giving equal weight to future costs and benefits would impose intolerable obligations on the present generation” — “has been one of the most influential arguments for the economic practice of discounting.” He himself seems willing to allow that most people will be better off in the future — or “richer, at any rate” — but he also maintains that, if there’s even a very small chance of permanent world impoverishment instead, we should not take this chance. Moreover, he observes, “we should not take it for granted that the story of industrialization has a happy ending” (Rendall, 2019).

Taking it all for granted is just what still seems to be commonly done, however, as in this blog post by a philosophy graduate student; he argues against the view that “any discount rate other than zero would be incompatible with intergenerational justice,” maintaining that the reason why this conclusion is wrong is “the fact that, as a result of economic growth, people in a century from now will be a lot richer than us” (Lemoine, 2017, emphasis added). He then says something that may convey a deeper message than he intended:

You may be tempted to say that we can’t assume that productivity will continue to increase, but you have to realize that, if it did not, climate change would not even be a problem. Indeed, the models that are used to predict what is going to happen if we keep emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere assume that GDP will continue to grow, which is precisely why they predict that greenhouse gases emissions will continue to increase unless we do something. If economic growth stopped, emissions would not continue to increase and, as a result, there would be no problem to mitigate in the first place. (Lemoine, 2017)

The point of the above claim seems to be well made: the policies we should be considering seriously are not simply about choosing what mitigation strategies we should invest in, as projects to be carried out, but rather ways we can begin cutting back on our consumption and our “economic growth,” which of course is driving our increasing GHG emissions.

That’s precisely what adherents of the emerging idea of “degrowth” have in mind. Samuel Alexander (2011) calls for a policy of “planned economic contraction,” defined as “’an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions,’” pointing to the work of Richard Easterlin and others seemingly showing that, “beyond a certain material standard of living, increases in personal and/or national income have a fast disappearing marginal utility,”[46] a finding that reportedly holds for a number of developing and transitioning countries as well as developed ones (Easterlin et al., 2010); he warns, however, that adoption of a policy of degrowth is “highly unlikely” without “a cultural revolution in attitudes toward Western-style consumer lifestyles.” Milena Buchs and Max Koch (2019) note that Easterlin’s conclusion has been challenged, and they argue for a move away from comparing scores of “subjective wellbeing” toward an assessment of wellbeing in terms of objective standards, as done in the “human needs” approach, which can be used to provide a basis for claiming a moral obligation to fulfill the needs of future generations; while wants are regarded as “insatiable” in contemporary economic theory, moreover, needs can be satisfied and are “in principle compatible with an economy based on stable matter and energy throughput.” They also focus on the problem of “growth lock-in” due to its embeddedness in many of our socially constructed institutions and the relationship “between growth and people’s mind-sets and identities.”

To the IPCC, however, making a move in the direction of “degrowth” is apparently inconceivable at this time. The studies that most policymakers are looking at are presented under the guise of being “scientific” — and they do look impressive, with lots of quantitative modeling–but when you look at what’s actually being “modeled,” you find that much of it bottoms out, not in the real world, open to empirical investigation, but rather in abstract concepts that are rooted in the conceptual framework of the kind of standard economic theory we have been discussing here. The IPCC projects “mitigation scenarios” to control emissions on the basis of “Integrated Assessment Models,” which are essentially cost-benefit analyses; those who devise them are more at home measuring quantities of dollars than the thickness of ice sheets, and seem more concerned with achieving a token amount of mitigation at the lowest possible cost than with maintaining conditions on the planet that will be most conducive to supporting biological life. Joachim Spangenberg and Lia Polotzek (2019) take aim at these “IAMs,” climate scenarios that merge the science and the economics that the IPCC relies on “assuming that both disciplines provide adequate descriptions of the parts of reality they are in charge of analyzing and understanding,” asking, “— but do they?”

As they explain, current mainstream economics–technically known as neoclassical economics — is based on “three defining elements”: methodological individualism, utility maximization, and market equilibrium; economic behavior can be modeled on the basis of parameters reflecting these elements and their interactions, but these models are “inherently deterministic,” and thus incapable of grappling with the unpredictable dynamics of the real-world systems and with their ascending levels of complexity. The models have been tweaked, but they are still basically deterministic, and their equilibrium assumptions rule out evolution of the structure of the overall system itself, so any major changes are assumed to be reversible — a “fatal flaw,” they claim.

Moreover, earlier economists, including John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes, and even Friedrich von Hayek, were interested in understanding broader issues, such as how wealth, markets, and the macro-structure of the economy came into being, but after World War II mainstream economists narrowed down their focus to individual agents making “rational” choices. But the roots of “rational choice theory,” construing “rationality” solely in terms of self-interest and utility maximization, clearly lie squarely within utilitarian ethics,[47] which is only one of several schools of moral philosophy in the Western tradition; it can hardly be claimed to be “a universal theory of human behavior,” since, in “stark contrast” with other ethical theories, it is unable to account for “committed” or “pro-social” behavior (see Herfeld 2013). As Spangenberg and Polotzek point out, this means that, while such economic models are being presented as purely descriptive, they are in fact smuggling in a great deal of “normative baggage,” disguising the outcomes of their economic models as the result of “purely rational” human thought, when in fact they incorporate a set of assumptions generated by one particular approach to ethics. It also explains why the IPCC’s models have been unable to generate any scenarios that actually halt the increase in greenhouse gas emissions; built into them from the start is an imperative to maximize the “social utility function,” usually represented by the GDP. In other words, “the ‘optimal’ outcome is more wealth in a national economy, in monetary terms”; consequently, policy steps that might reduce production and consumption and therefore lessen GDP growth would be considered sub-optimal, and “either cannot be depicted or are not used” — even though such cutbacks are needed to reach emissions goals. They conclude, “it is our very standard of evaluation” — inherent in the construction of these models themselves — that leads to “deeply ideologically biased policy recommendations being presented as ‘objective scientific insights,’ which has made economics the favorite legitimation science [but remember, it’s not a science!] of neoliberal decision makers in politics and business.”

The “fatal flaw,” however, was revealed when the IPCC duly cranked out four scenarios aimed at avoiding crossing the 1.5°C-above-preindustrial-levels “safety” threshold, including “one explicitly ambitious sustainability scenario” — lo and behold, all of them still produced an overshoot in emissions and hence temperature. To rectify this, the policy wonks simply proposed that the overshoot will be reversed, principally via the “negative emissions” of their favorite technology, bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Among other criticisms of this move, Anderson and Peters (2016) point out that the IPCC’s IAMs “assume that the discounted costs of BECCS in future decades is less than the cost of deep mitigation today” — thereby, as Spangenberg and Polotzek remark, making it “appear plausible to ‘kick the can down the road.’” Since the IPCC offers no scenario that does not assume continuing economic growth, such growth “appears to be an assumption which cannot be questioned”; “thus, assumptions of 80 years of growth and the risk of hothouse climate conditions are considered a realistic option, while deep structural change necessary to limit climate damage isn’t.”

The “fatal flaw” in this thinking, however, according to Spangenberg and Polotzek, is that it fails to grasp the irreversibility of evolutionary paths of complex systems, the fact that “you never cross the same river twice”; it should thus be obvious, they say, “that an overshoot — temporary or permanent — is not acceptable, once the lessons from complex systems theory are taken into account.” The discipline of economics, they observe, “is driven by world views and their ontologies which are more based on Newton’s mechanics than rooted in modern science’s understanding of systems complexity”; to provide intelligent guidance into a livable future, it must change. First of all, economics must change its ontology: it must be recognized that “the economy is a subsystem of society, which in turn is embedded in the environmental systems.” In accord with this, they say, it must also change its epistemology, to accommodate uncertainty and ignorance, and it must change its axiology, recognizing other sorts of value systems beyond the “economic rationality” of self-interested utility maximization. As part of its ontological change, moreover, economics must change its anthropology, coming to see human beings as the symbol-using social and biological beings that they are, engaged in the process of actively constructing their economic systems, as Searle would have it, and fully capable of changing them to meet the challenges we face. As it stands now, however, Spangenberg and Polotzek charge, the IPCC’s climate models “are castles in the clouds, and the conclusions drawn from them are dangerous for humankind and the global environment” (2019).

12.8 Who Are We?

It is now time to ask, who are we? What kind of beings do we choose to be? What does it mean to be a member of the human species — what are our possibilities, and what sorts of responsibilities follow from that membership? Roughly two decades ago, I considered what we might learn from an examination of the lives of the other primates, our species’ closest relatives, and I also explored some of the ethical dimensions of intergroup relations, those between different groupings of humans and those at the level of species, our own and others. Today much concern is expressed about the evils of racism and sexism, but still few seem to be “woke” to the evils of anthropocentrism, which not only heedlessly destroys other life but also blinds us humans to the incredible, awe-inspiring aliveness of the Biosphere and the kinds of lives we could lead were we not trapped in self-absorbed patterns of thought and action, noncognizant of our place within the larger scheme of things. Does it make sense for us to subgroup ourselves into warring nation-states, escalating our militaries to fight over the last deposits of fossil fuel when we know burning it will spell doom for us all? Is it intelligent to draw down aquifers and ecosystems around the globe so that more and more of us can consume more and more? Does rationality dictate that our lives should be devoted to maximizing the number of symbols we can accrue in conceptual space? Shall we risk future zoonotic pandemics because we fear to criticize the cultural proclivities of human subgroups different from our own? We need to start thinking as a species now, finding the biological commonality beneath the socially constructed boundaries that constrain and confuse us, in order to craft a viable future.

Eileen Crist urges us to “reimagine the human,” to relinquish the worldview of human supremacy, “scaling down” the size of the human enterprise and “pulling back” from our invasion of nature, and I hope this chapter has clarified why doing so is necessary. Why is it so hard to do? Again, the answer seems to lie with our social psychology: the reinforcement of denial, growing stronger as group members sense the depth of guilt potentially associated with learning the truth, generating paralysis as the group seeks refuge in determinism — the belief that “we have no choice” but to keep on thinking and doing as we have been. To counter this powerful force, I suggest turning to Lorraine Code, whose notion of “epistemic responsibility” — the responsibility to seek out an understanding of the reality of one’s situation–should be fundamental to human species membership, and to Jean-Paul Sartre, an existentialist philosopher appropriate for today’s “existential crisis.” Making no excuses for his anthropocentric disdain of all things biological and the sexist language of his day, I nevertheless respect in Sartre his courage to reject the determinist ploy, recognizing our human freedom to choose our actions and the responsibility this carries. Seemingly speaking for the species, he writes “man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so”; “man is responsible for what he is,” but “in choosing for himself he chooses for all men.” The conclusion to this line of thinking, however, must be amended; where Sartre declares, “our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole,” I would add, no, it is far greater than this — it now concerns the Biosphere as a whole.

Resources and References


Key Points

  • For centuries, humanity has been waging a war against non-human nature that culminated in the complex challenges that we are facing in the Anthropocene.
  • The war has brought a catastrophic wave of species extinctions that occur at an unprecedented rate which is still increasing. This has led to the disintegration of food webs and ecosystems worldwide as a backdrop to the explosive growth of our populations and consumption patterns.
  • The anthropogenic driving factors behind extinctions include human predation, pollution, resource extraction, and mismanagement of environments. Pollution in its many forms exerts adverse effects on climate and on the chemical composition of land and oceans.
  • In order to sustain our growing numbers, humans have developed ever more intrusive and abusive practices of food acquisition that are beginning to feed back and affect public health. Especially the industrial production and processing of animal parts has reached such grotesque extents and procedures that they need to be hidden from the view of consumers.
  • Human incursions into ‘natural’ ecosystems in pursuit of animal protein and industrial raw materials is driving further ecological deterioration. The continued ‘harvesting’ of body parts for cultural uses illustrates our incompetence at realizing the consequences of what we are collectively doing.
  • The growth of economies has been driven by conceptual models that are outdated, harmful, abusive and utterly unscientific. Yet, those models and ways of thinking are continuing to dominate world politics and decision-making. This obstinate collective refusal to learn does not bode well for the coming decades, where rapid collective learning will be essential for our security and for the stability of the biosphere.


Extension Activities & Further Research

  1. Speculate how the global plastic pollution might have been avoided if the packaging industries and recycling industries had been combined in a timely manner; how could that be accomplished at this late stage?
  2. In terms of ecological integrity and biodiversity, what are the most harmful industrial activities in British Columbia? Who controls them, and how?
  3. Formulate your own perspective on the mechanisms and manifestations of humanity’s War against Nature. How is this war different from other wars, and how is it the same?
  4. Explain what factors are at work in shaping the consumption level of a human individual. In what ways and to what extents are those factors affecting your own consumption?
  5. Express your ideas and hopes as to how this War might end or be ended. In what ways would humans need to ‘reinvent’ themselves?

List of Terms

See Glossary for full list of terms and definitions.

  • acidification
  • Allee effect
  • apex predator
  • CAFO
  • defaunation
  • deoxygenation
  • extinction debt
  • food web
  • footprint
  • neoclassical economics
  • species
  • utility


References 12.1

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Crutzen, P. J. (2002). Geology of mankind. Nature, 415(6867), 23. https://doi.org/10.1038/415023a

Folke, C. (2016). Resilience (republished). Ecology and Society, 21(4), Article 44. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09088-210444

Folke, C., Carpenter, S. R., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Chapin, T., & Rockström, J. (2010). Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society, 15(4), Article 20. https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss4/art20

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., III, Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H. J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C. A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sörlin, S., Snyder, P. K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461(24), 472–475. https://doi.org/10.1038/461472a

Steffen, W., Persson, Å., Deutsch, L., Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Richardson, K., Crumley, C., Crutzen, P., Folke, C., Gordon, L., Molina, M., Ramanathan, V., Rockström, J., Scheffer, M., Schellnhuber, H. J., & Svedin, U. (2011). The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 40(7), 739–761. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x

Steffen, W., Rockström, J., Richardson, K., Lenton, T. M., Folke, C., Liverman, D., Summerhayes, C. P., Barnosky, A. D., Cornell, S. E., Crucifix, M., Donges, J. F., Fetzer, I., Lade, S. J., Scheffer, M., Winkelmann, R., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2018). Trajectories of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(33), 8252–8259. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1810141115

References 12.2

Annorbah, N. N. D., Collar, N. J., & Marsden, S. J. (2015). Trade and habitat change virtually eliminate the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus from Ghana. Ibis, 158(1), 82–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12332

Bar-On, Y. M., Phillips, R., & Milo, R. (2018). The biomass distribution on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(25), 6506–6511. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1711842115

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., García, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. (2015). Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances, 1(5), Article e1400253. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400253

Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., & Dirzo, R. (2017). Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(30), E6089–E6096. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1704949114

Chase, M. J., Schlossberg, S., Griffin, C. R., Bouché, P. J. C., Djene, S. W., Elkan, P. W., Ferreira, S., Grossman, F., Kohi, E. M., Landen, K., Omondi, P., Peltier, A., Selier, S. A. J., & Sutcliffe, R. (2016). Continent-wide survey reveals massive decline in African savannah elephants. PeerJ, 4, Article e2354. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2354

Courchamp, F., Jaric, I., Albert, C., Meinard, Y., Ripple, W. J., & Chapron, G. (2018). The paradoxical extinction of the most charismatic animals. PLOS Biology, 16(4), Article e2003997. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003997

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  1. Readers should recall the importance of “thinking in systems,” as discussed in Chapter 11.
  2. For an account of a large population of chimpanzees and other forest animals recently discovered in a remote forest of the DRC and now falling victim to the bushmeat trade, see Carrington, D. (2014), Huge Chimpanzee Population Thriving in Remote Congo Forest. The Guardian, 7 February; video recordings of the chimpanzees (Eastern chimpanzee: Male coalition video), forest elephants (Forest elephants video), and worries about their fate (Video: A few words from Bili Project Director, Dr. Cleve Hicks) were made by researchers, and later followed up by NBC News (On Assignment: One More Thing - Mystery Apes of the Congo).
  3. For more on the helmeted hornbill and efforts to save the species, see Video: Inside the Mission to Save the Rare Helmeted Hornbill From Poachers and Video: Illegal Hunting Has Pushed This Iconic Bird to the Brink.
  4. View the video “How Wolves Change Rivers,” narrated by George Monbiot, on YouTube.
  5. A video of the bee waggle dance can be seen online.
  6. The effects of these changes on calcifying organisms at the base of many marine food webs will be considered in the next section.
  7. Thereby coining a term that is finding ever-widening applicability as changes accelerate in this Anthropocene epoch: as we all “shift our baselines,” forgetting how things used to be as we get used to the changes coming on all around us and stop trying to stave them off.
  8. See Daniel Pauly's TED Talk, The ocean's shifting baseline.
  9. Some amazing photographs of hand-collected live pteropods can be seen at Waters, H., (2013), Amazing Sea Butterflies Are the Canary in the Coal Mine on Smithsonian.com. View the short video Pteropods: Swimming snails of the sea on YouTube.
  10. It should be noted that two molecules of bicarbonate (HCO3−) are used up for every calcium ion incorporated into the shell of a marine organism, lowering the pH and total alkalinity of the seawater and rendering it less able to absorb CO2; therefore, a decrease in the removal of carbonate ions by calcifying organisms dying and falling to the sea floor, presumably brought about by a dramatic decrease in their populations, “would increase the capacity of the oceans to take up CO2 from the atmosphere,” since there would be more carbonate ions available in the water and total alkalinity of the upper ocean would increase (Feely et al., 2004), a relationship that has been discussed for several decades. David Archer claimed in 2005 (Fate of Fossil Fuel CO2 in Geologic Time. Journal of Geophysical Research 110: C09S05. Doi 10.1029/2004JC002625. https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2004JC002625) that, if the size of what he called “the anthropogenic CO2 slug” turned out to be 5000 GtC (the estimated size of carbon reserves at that time — they are now thought to be as much as three times greater), the calcium carbonate in the deep ocean will “near depletion,” after which atmospheric carbon dioxide would begin to rise again — by which he seems to mean, on a less than charitable reading, that, from a purely anthropocentric, reductionistic perspective, he can contemplate humanity letting all of the shelled organisms of the world’s oceans be killed off so that we can continue burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon into the air for just a little bit longer.
  11. For studies of the relationship between increasing acidity and shell decalcification of a number of marine organisms, see Orr, J., et al. (2005), Anthropogenic Ocean Acidification over the Twenty-first Century and Its Impact on Calcifying Organisms, Nature 437: 681-686 https://www.nature.com/articles/nature4095, Rivero-Calle, S., et al. (2015), Multidecadal Increase in North Atlantic Coccolithophores and the Potential Role of Rising CO2, Science 350 (6267): 1533-1537. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/350/6267/1533.full, and Davis, C., et al. (2017), Ocean Acidification Compromises a Planktic Calcifier with Implications for Global Carbon Cycling, Scientific Reports 7: 2225, 1-8. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-01530-9.pdf.
  12. These authors note that, unlike the order of reef-building corals, members of the Primate order “do not possess analogous ‘survival’ traits that enable some species to transcend major extinction boundaries,” referencing Estrada, A., et al. (2017). Impending Extinction Crisis of the World’s Primates: Why Primates Matter. Science Advances 3 91): e1600946 https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/1/e1600946.full.
  13. A. Thompson (2018) provides a graphic illustrating the size range of plastic particles.
  14. Professor Bartlett explains the fundamentals of exponential growth and its relation to population and energy in the first few minutes of the video Arithmetic, Population and Growth.
  15. An animation of the growth of the human population over time can be seen in the video Human Population Through Time. Growth in real time is shown by Worldometer’s World Population Clock.
  16. A panel discussion on these issues can be viewed online in the video Hotspots: Population Growth in Areas of High Biodiversity.
  17. See Cincotta, R., J. Wisnewski, and R. Engelman. (2000). Human Population in Biodiversity Hotspots. Nature 404: 990-992. Doi 10:1038/35010105 https://www.nature.com/articles/35010105, Cordeiro, N., et al. (2007). Conservation in Areas of High Population Density in Sub-Saharan Africa. Biological Conservation 134 (2): 155–163. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320706003211, and Burgess, N., Balmford, A., and Cordeiro, N. (2007). Correlations Among Species Distributions, Human Density and Human Infrastructure Across the High Biodiversity Tropical Mountains of Africa. Biological Conservation 134 (2): 164-177. Doi 10.1016/j.biocon.2006.08.024 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S006320706003326.
  18. See also two richly illustrated books, Mittermeyer, R., N. Myers, and C. Mittermeyer, eds. (1999). Hotspots: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions. Mexico City: CEMAX, S.A. ISBN 968-6397-58-2, and Mittermeyer, R., et al. (2005). Hotspots Revisited: Earth’s Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions. Mexico City: CEMAX, S.A. distributed by Conservation International, Chicago. ISBN 9789686397772.
  19. Also see a podcast by Williams, J., V. Mohan, and D. Lopez-Carr. (2012). Hotspots: Population Growth in Areas of High Biodiversity. Podcast, Wilson Center Environmental Change and security Program.
  20. See, e.g. O’Neill, B., et al. (2012). Demographic Change and Carbon Dioxide Emissions. Lancet 380: 157-164. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60958-1, O’Neill et al. (2014). A New Scenario Framework for Climate Change Research: The Concept of Shared Socioeconomic Pathways. Climate Change 122: 387-400. Doi 10.1007/s10584-013-0905-2. https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2Fs10584-013-0906-1.pdf, Lutz, W. (2017). How Population Growth Relates to Climate Change. PNAS 114 (46): 12103-12105. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1717178114, and Casey, G., and O. Galor. (2017). Is Faster Economic Growth Compatible with Reductions in Carbon Emissions? The Role of Diminished Population Growth. Environmental Research Letters 12: 014003 doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/12/1/014003.
  21. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change”
  22. A short video on the reasoning behind this conclusion is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTm-402a9dA, offering some telling insight into the reductive, highly abstract logic entertained by some schools of philosophy; the narrator ascribes this counterintuitive conclusion to “the recursive error”: “just because the first two examples are reasonable, it does not mean that the conclusion is reasonable” — “or even sane, to consider a huge, miserable population better than a small happy one.”
  23. A famous 1874 illustration by Ernst Haeckel has been the subject of some controversy, but developmental biologist Michael Richardson and colleagues, while criticizing the inaccuracies of his drawings, note that, “on a fundamental level, Haeckel was correct: all vertebrates develop a similar body plan (consisting of notochord, body segments, pharyngeal pouches, and so forth),” and that “he was also right to show strong similarities between his earliest embryos of humans and other eutherian mammals,” such as the cat and the bat (Richardson, M., et al. (1998). Haeckel, Embryos, and Evolution. Science 280 (5366): 983. Doi 10.1126/science 280.5366983c https://science.sciencemag.org/content/280/5366/983.3.full.)
  24. Concerned about the rapid depletion of the coal supply that was needed to maintain Britain’s hegemony as an industrial power, William Jevons observed in 1865 that improvements in the efficiency of deriving power from coal would not help the situation, maintaining “it is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”
  25. A similar warning about the increasing trade in virtual water and the threat posed by its decoupling from local feedback processes was raised earlier by D’Odorico, P., F. Laio, and L. Ridolfi. Does Globalization of water Reduce Societal Resilience to Drought? Geophysical Research Letters 31 (13): L13403. Doi: 10.1029/2010GL043167 https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2010GL043167, and “alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide” embedded in the international food trade were reported by Dalin C., et al. (2017). Groundwater Depletion Embedded in International Food Trade. Nature 543: 700-704, https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21403.
  26. Working as an undercover investigator at a pork processing plant, Scott David reports (2018) that he observed “workers — under intense pressure to keep up with high line speeds — beating, dragging, and electrically prodding pigs to make them move faster”; video from this pork-producing plant has surfaced showing many animals have not been effectively rendered unconscious before their throats are cut (video: USDA Approved High Speed Slaughter Hell); Meanwhile, the USDA also has plans to increase the slaughter rates for chickens to 175 birds per minute, according to the ASPCA (2018); a similarly horrifying video of the rapid slaughtering of chickens can be witnessed.
  27. The IATP publishes an infographic entitled “Big Meat and Dairy’s Supersized Climate Footprint” (IATP 2017), showing the relative size of GHG emissions contributions made by just the top twenty livestock (meat and dairy) corporations, with a collective sum of 845 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (MtCO2e), greater than all of Germany’s; see Big Meat and Dairy's Supersized Climate Footprint.
  28. Space limitations do not permit a review of other recent studies linking a reduction in meat-eating to improved human health and environmental sustainability, but see, for example, Clark, M., and D. Tilman. (2017). Comparative Analysis of Environmental Impacts of Agricultural Production Systems, Agricultural Input Efficiency, and Food Choice. Environmental Research Letters 12: 064016. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa6cd5/meta. [includes video], Springman, M., et al. (2018). Options for Keeping the Food System Within Environmental Limits. Nature. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0594-0, Poore, J., and T. Nemecek. (2018). Reducing Food’s Environmental Impact Through Producers and Consumers. Science 360: 987-992. https://science.sciencemag,org/content/36o/6392/987.full, and most recently the British medical journal The Lancet Willet, W., et al. (2019). Food in the Anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems. The Lancet Commisions. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(18)31788-4.
  29. Some of them can be can be seen on the web pages World Wildlife Fund: Amazon wildlife and Mongabay: Animals of the Amazon rainforest.
  30. An estimated one billion wild mammals, birds and reptiles were estimated to have died in the Australian wildfires (partly tropical forest, partly not) by early January 2020; see Lewis, D. (2020). Ecologist Michael Clarke Describes Australian Wildfires’ Devastating Aftermath. Nature 577: 304. https://www.nature.com/magazine-assets/d41586-020-00043-2/d41586-020-00043-2.pdf.
  31. See Nobre’s TEDx Talk, The magic of the Amazon: A river that flows invisibly all around us (mostly in Portuguese).
  32. For more on the relationships among deforestation, drought, and wildfires, see Zemp, D., et al. (2017). Self-Amplified Amazon Forest Loss Due to Vegetation-Atmosphere Feedbacks. Nature Communications 8: 14681 doi: 10.1038/ncomms14681 https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14681, Aragao, L., J. Barlow and L. Anderson. (2018). Amazon Rainforests that Were Once Fire-Proof Have Become Flammable. The Conversation, February 13. https://the conversation.com/amazon-rainforests-that-were-once-fire-proof-have-become-flammable91775, Brando, P., et al. (2019). Droughts, Wildfires, and Forest Carbon Cycling: A Pantropical Synthesis. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 47: 555-581, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-earth-082517-010235, and Fonseca, M., et al. (2019). Effects of Climate and Land-Use Change Scenarios on Fire Probability During the 21st Century in the Brazilian Amazon. Global Change Biology 25 (9): 2931-2946. https://onlinelibrary,wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.14709.
  33. Please note that the term bushmeat will be used here to indicate the result of animals being taken directly from the wild, whether for meat, the trade in live animals or their body parts, or hunting trophies; the term poaching is often used by authors to distinguish such killing when it is illegal, but, as will be discussed later in this section, sometimes the legality or illegality of the killing is contested, or unclearly related to the protection of the species.
  34. Much more can be learned about the bushmeat problem on Karl Ammann’s website.
  35. The terminology employed in this report — animals are referred to as “sources of biomass that move,” for example–is quite unsettling to those of us who think in terms of the subjective lives of the animals under the gun.
  36. A suggested way of effecting behavior change with the aim of curtailing the COVID-19 outbreak (Michie, 2020) could be adapted to this purpose, by creating (a) “an accurate mental model of the process of transmission,” expanded to display the global trajectory of bushmeat, showing potential points of interruption; (b) new social norms; (c) appropriate emotional responses at appropriate levels, such as anxiety and disgust; (d) replacement behaviors for the undesirable ones, and — the only one likely to be difficult in this situation; (e) a way to make the desired new behaviors easy.
  37. The helmeted hornbill, for example, is being pushed into extinction because of trade in its helmet-like casque; see video: Illegal Hunting Has Pushed This Iconic Bird to the Brink.
  38. Space concerns constrain our ability to consider these issues further here, but for pro and con positions on using firearms and military tactics to defend remaining wildlife populations, see Lunstrum, E. (2014), Green Militarization: Anti-Poaching Efforts and the Spatial Contours of Kruger National Park. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 104 (4): 816-832. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2014.912545, Lindsey, P., et al. (2013). The Bushmeat Trade in African Savannahs: Impacts, Drivers, and Possible Solutions. Biological Conservation 160: 80-96. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320712005186, and Mogomotsi, G., and P. Madigele. (2017). Live by the Gun, Die by the Gun: Botswana’s “Shoot-toKill” Policy as an Anti-Poaching Strategy. South African Crime Quarterly No. 60, June. https://journals.assaf.org.za/sacq/article/view/1787. For pro and con positions on trophy hunting, see Macdonald, D. (2016a). Report on Lion Conservation with Particular Respect to the Issue of Trophy Hunting. A Report Prepared at the Request of Rory Stewart OBE, Under Secretary of State for the Environment WildCRU, Oxford. https://www.wildcru.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Report_on_lion_conservation.pdf, Dickman, A., et al. (2019). Trophy Hunting Bans Imperil Biodiversity. Science 365 (6456): 874. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/365/6456/874, Sills, J., ed. (2019) Letters [on Trophy Hunting]. Science 366 (6464): 432-435. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/366/6464/433.1.full.pdf, Batavia, C., et al. (2019a). The Elephant Head in the Room: A Critical Look at Trophy Hunting. Conservation Letters 12:e12565, https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/conl.1256.5, and Batavia, C. et al. (2019b). Trophy Hunting: Values Inform Policy. Science 366 (6464): 433. Doi: 10.1126/science.aaz4023 https://science,sciencemag,org/content/366/6464/433.1/tab-pdf., and Darimont, C., B. Codding, and K. Hawkes. (2017). Why Men Trophy Hunt. Biology Letters 13: 20160909. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2016.0909. For discussions of value change in among conservationists and within the larger public on these issues, see Bruskotter, J., et al. (2019). Conservationists’ Moral Obligations Toward Wildlife: Values and Identity Promote Conservation Conflict. Biological Conservation 240: 108296, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320719312595, Manfredo, M., et al. (2019). How Anthropomorphism Is Changing the Social Context of Modern Wildlife Conservation. Biological Conservation online 2 December, 108297, https://www.sciencedirect.com/article/abs/pii/S0006320719311929, and Keim, B. (2019). America’s Views On Wildlife Are Changing. Anthropocene December 18 http://www.anthropocenemagazine.ord/2019/12/anthropomorphism-and-wildlife/.
  39. It should be noted that charging “interest” on loans was considered usury and outlawed by some Christian societies until well past the Middle Ages, and is still prohibited by some Islamic societies today.
  40. Czech has gone on to serve as president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.
  41. Images of both the embedded “circular flow diagram” and her new “doughnut model” can be seen in the Guardian article, “Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the doughnut”.
  42. Adding the interest earned over each given time period to the base sum and then multiplying that larger sum by the interest rate over each subsequent time period
  43. The maneuver is something like subtracting the accumulated interest from the initial $10,000, but it comes out mathematically a little different.
  44. There is evidence that different parts of the brain are involved in valuing immediate versus delayed returns — the limbic system appears to be more involved with immediate outcomes, while lateral prefrontal and associated parietal cortices appear to become activated when considering loner time periods and more difficult decisions (see McClure et al., 2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science 306 (5695): 503-507. Doi: 10.1126/science.1100907 https://science.sciencemag.org/content/sci/306/5695/503.full.pdf)
  45. See, e.g. Liederkerke, L. (2004). Discounting the Future: John Rawls and Derek Parfit’s Critique of the Discount Rate. Ethical Perspectives 11 (1): 72-83. http://www.ethical-perspectives.be/pahe.php?, Gowdy, J., J. Rosser, and L. Roy (2013). The Evolution of Hyperbolic Discounting: Implications for Truly Social Valuation of the Future. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 90S: S94-S104 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167268112002727.
  46. Marginal utility is the additional amount of positive experience or “utility” a person gets from acquiring one additional unit of something.
  47. Utilitarian ethics can, however, be expanded to include the “disutility” of the impacts of climate change on nonhuman animals (or at least on humans who care about them); see Sunstein, C., and W. Hsiung. (2007). Climate Change and Animals. John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 324. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/law_and_economics/106/Climate_Change_and_Animals.


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